Puppet shows often inspire expectations of sweet-tempered children’s entertainment. But the captivating hand-crafted puppets in Bowling Green State University department of theatre and film’s staging of Frankenstein will be anything but cuddly. In this production, art and imagination intersect to bring a fearsome Creature to life.
The show, opening March 27 in BGSU’s intimate Eva Marie Saint Theatre in the Wolfe Center for the Arts, is based on Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel, not the 1931 Boris Karloff movie. The script has been adapted from the novel by Bradford Clark, BGSU professor of theater. This production follows Shelley’s 1818 manuscript, and is not meant for children; parents are cautioned not to bring those under 12. “There’s a limit on how frightening a puppet can be, but we’re not pulling any punches for the kids,” Clark said in a statement. In the tradition of horror works, “there’s stylized violence, but it is violent, and there are wild sounds and darkness and ‘blood.’”
In addition to writing the script, Clark, who teaches courses in international puppetry, puppetry design and construction, and puppetry and performance in addition to history of film animation and Asian theater, designed and hand-carved the puppets’ wooden heads and arms. He also has a team, including primary assistant Terra Writz, who play key roles in making the puppets.
The main characters are the Creature; his creator, Victor Frankenstein; Victor’s bride, Elizabeth; Captain Walton, and the bride of Frankenstein. “We have about seven rod puppets (table-top-types, inspired by Japanese traditional puppetry),” he said in an email. “We also use four glove [hand] puppets, a few additional small rod puppets, and about a dozen shadow puppets.”
The show will be presented in the style of Japanese theater, with the table-top puppets controlled by students who are draped in black so the characters take center stage. Nine former and current student actors control the puppets and perform all the roles. “They need to jointly develop not just their characters but a careful choreography of gesture,” Clark said, something like the horse puppets seen in War Horse.
“The best puppet performers are excellent actors (and dancers and singers and mimes) who also possess an additional, extraordinarily difficult skill set; the figures don't move or speak for themselves,” he added.
The table-top figures, including the somewhat graphic Creature, are the hardest to make, with heads and hands carved out of basswood blocks shipped from Wisconsin. Their bodies are made of muslin and covered in beautifully detailed costumes by BGSU’s Laurel Damon and her crew in the costume shop. “The hand puppet heads are also carved out of wood, while most of the shadow puppets are cardboard. We also are using some pieces created through traditional Italian mask-making techniques, which involves leather tooled for hours over wooden and plaster molds,” Clark said.
Clark chose Frankenstein because “bringing the inanimate to life is certainly a big part of puppetry. This is far from the first adaptation of Frankenstein for puppet theater. Interestingly enough, the first appearance of the Creature in a film was as a puppet, in Edison’s short version. This particular script is my own adaptation, and while I’ve taken some major liberties, I do believe it’s fundamentally true to Shelley’s book, with much of the dialogue adapted heavily edited from the 1818 edition.”
Clark is consulting curator of collections for the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. He is curating the creation of a gallery at the center for the extensive (Jim) Henson Family collection of historic puppets and has curated and designed exhibits from the global collection as well.
“While I have been integrating puppetry (as well as masks, which are related “performing objects”) into almost all of my directing work for about 36 years now, the theatre and film department at BGSU has given me the opportunity to pursue it on a more regular basis as director/designer, teacher, and researcher. I hope that we can continue to develop that aspect of the program,” Clark said.
Performances of Frankenstein are at 8 p.m. March 28-29 and April 3-5, and at 2 p.m. March 29-30 and April 5. Tickets are $10, from 419-372-8171 or BGSU.edu/arts.
Contact Sue Brickey at: firstname.lastname@example.org.