The Pied Piper and his puppets

The Pied Piper and his puppets

Zoot Theatre Company presents ‘And a Child Shall Lead’

By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: one of the puppets from Zoot Theatre company’s production of “And a Child Shall Lead”

Under the most dire circumstances, children somehow find optimism and creativity, and most of all they find hope. Imagine what it took for 15,000 Jewish children under the age of 15 imprisoned from 1942-1945 in Terezin – a Nazi concentration camp not far from Prague, Czech Republic – to remain human amid tortuous circumstances.

Imagine what it takes to perform Michael Slade’s play incorporating the actual poetry, art, music, even parts from a secret newspaper created by those brave children. Now imagine doing this drama with puppets.

Zoot Theatre Company will prove it can be done at the Dayton Art Institute each weekend from Friday, April 5 through Sunday, April 14.

“For me, the puppets are real people and I feel the weight of that,” director Mark Metzger mused. “Tristan Cupp, Zoot’s artistic director, creates extraordinary puppets. He and I have been talking about this show for years and finally I had to agree this was the year to do it. We didn’t know this would also be the year when Michael Slade would actually be in Dayton. The playwright was doing a two-week workshop with the Human Race of his script in progress ‘Gingerbread Children.’ On his only night off he came to one of our early rehearsals.”

Slade’s delight and near amazement as he “met” his characters coming to life in puppets was a special moment. He said: “I’ve seen other productions of ‘Child,’ of course, but never puppets. It works! And it is so cool.” He told the cast and crew the play was born in the ‘80s and is very close to his heart. “Those children gave their lives, but their humanity and creativity is timeless.”

The actor/puppeteers grow more skilled with each rehearsal, making their “children” run, hug, dance – that takes extra hands to manipulate – and speak so convincingly that the puppets come alive and the actors almost disappear. One plays a violin, another holds books, they write and draw and sing and cry. Acquiring paper was life threatening and yet the actual children managed to produce a newspaper, VEDEM, “We Shall Lead.”

Praise is due Sarah Gomes, properties master, as well. Not only has she calmly acquired the impossible, she has found or made it in miniature.

Even as Metzger holds a low-key but intense production meeting, Cupp, red-eyed from working until 11 p.m. the previous evening constructing wooden armatures for the eight child puppets, continues quietly to add details. With a small hook, an eye screw and a bit of thread, he articulates a small plaster hand. Unlike conventional puppet attachments, this wrist can now turn left and right, up or down, with a range of motion like a human joint.

Of course, that requires a puppeteer. The 10 actors in the cast are “the best of the best.” “Auditions included script readings and an opportunity to handle and manipulate puppets,” said Cupp. “We look at how comfortable the actor is bringing to life an inanimate object.”

In later rehearsals, the skeletonic wooden puppets have papier-mâché bodies, hair and appropriately ragged clothing created by another talented Zoot staff, artist/costumer Shirley Wasser. She has also made sure the live actors are encased in plain black to add to their invisibility. Cupp’s set consists of several narrow rolling platforms on which the puppets are moved. The actors can also rearrange the tables quickly and quietly, allowing scenes to change without requiring spell-breaking blackouts. A series of movable bunk bed frames adds to the crowded single dormitory feeling.

More truly, each child is animated by dialogue, driven by an internal spirit, the soul that validates the strength to live and be remembered. They continue to be determined to learn. When their teacher is killed, they gather the books and plan to teach each other, discovering more talents in the group. Older children, teens, take care of younger ones as best they can, comforting them after slaving in factories all day. A younger child uses a scrap of paper to draw her parents, even as their images fade. “I have to keep them alive in my mind” she says. Another: “I want to fly, I will not die.”

The older teens wistfully express universal longing, “Wouldn’t it be horrible to die a virgin?” one muses. Their hesitant overtures are as shy and poignant as they might be in a normal life. Other moments of reality emerge: a brief push and shove disagreement, a grumpy objection, a silly game. But their fate is apparent and inevitable and with the foresight to preserve their creations, they begin to hide their precious papers, making sure each knows where: hope for the future.

“I want the audience to understand puppetry can be serious,” Cupp said.

After the first Sunday matinee, the children of the Hillel Academy of Greater Dayton will perform a song they wrote in response to the story. After the Sunday matinee on April 14, Renate Frydman will share real life stories of a family member who survived the Holocaust.

No matter when you go, the drama and the tenderness will be there; it may be wise to check your tissue supply.

The Zoot Theatre Company presents “And a Child Shall Lead” weekends April 5-14 at the Dayton Art Institute’s Renaissance Theatre, 456 Belmonte Park North. For more information, visit zoottheatrecompany.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com. 


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