The eleven vignettes offered us by the Cashore Marionettes last Saturday are presented essentially without settings—no overture, no segues, no scene-change music, the very simplest of spoken introductions—but they are very precious gems indeed; settings could only distract from their great beauty.
The Cashore Marionettes played at the Edison as part of the Ovations for Young People series. What a pity there was only that one performance! Joe Cashore is a supremely gifted puppet-master—truly incomparable. Over the past thirty years he has, in fact, fundamentally re-invented the art of the marionette—and he has garnered many laurels for his work.
The vignettes have the very simplest of plots, but the audience of all ages is utterly rapt. These are very, very human scenes, and so believable that sometimes one simply forgets that the characters we’re watching are mere fabrications, stitched and strung together by an artist. There is such deep emotional reality.
The scenes are mostly supported by classical music—Strauss, Copeland, Beethoven, Wagner and others. One marionette is the grand old violinist, “Maestro Janos Zelinka”, who performs “The Lark Ascending”, by Vaughan Williams. As a one-time violin student I can affirm that the Maestro’s bowing is simply perfect. The subtle action of his wrist is quite stunningly accurate.
There is a lovely, quiet piece where a mother soothes her baby to sleep. The gentle Vivaldi beautifully supports her tender, detailed loving care as she softly rocks the child. She playfully swings the infant aloft, and the babe wriggles its arms and legs in delight. When she puts him to bed there’s that tender, awkward good-night kiss, leaning over the cradle, that any parent will recall.
There is abundant humor, as when we see a youth valiantly struggling to perform a trapeze act—because the regular aerialist has stubbed his toe. After the lad swung by his feet I found myself totally recruited into his immense muscular effort to regain his hand-grip on the bar. In another scene Johnny Lobotomy, a heavy metal rock guitarist, shows totally convincing rapid fingering along the frets as he wildly drives his amplifier toward combustion.
There’s a pastoral scene where a horse nudges open his corral gate and enjoys a holiday on the meadow—in a trot, a canter, a gallop—and has a charming little contretemps with a dragon-fly.
One scene eloquently conveys the sheer joy of a boy flying a kite. Another shows the procrastination of a young girl who has been told to do her homework before bed-time. She can’t resist the call of her various toys, and only at the last minute dives into her text and into a very diligent scribbling in her notebook.
So some scenes are funny, some are sweet, some nostalgic—but others offer profound insights or deep social concern. “Old Mike” is a miserable homeless man. He’ll break your heart. This vignette shows some especially impressive tiny technical triumphs—as when Mike takes a handkerchief from his coat pocket, wipes his eyes, and then stuffs the hanky back into his pocket. Or when he sits and examines his foot and we see him wiggle his toes through the hole in the sole of his shoe.
I tend to be suspicious of the word “spiritual”; it’s burdened with so much flakey baggage, and it’s often little more than an intellectual cop-out. But one of Joe Cashore’s vignettes is perhaps the most genuinely spiritual thing I’ve ever seen on stage. It features a rather comic old Indian guru—the kind who sits on a mountain-top and contemplates nirvana. Amid his chants and prayers he notices a woven bag lying there on his mountain-top. While investigating it he suddenly realizes that he is in the presence of that power which controls every detail of his existence. He is in the presence of his God! And the gift that he receives from that God is both a joy and a temptation. There is no religiosity here, and we’re left with a lovely sense of mystery—a lovely and heartening and thought-provoking lack of resolution. It’s wonderful work.
In “The Quest” we watch a mountaineer scale the puppeteer to the very top—as if he were the east face of the Eiger.
As a beautiful bonus we were treated to a new “work in progress”: in “The Dream Time” we watch a proto-human explore his intriguing and frightening world. With the invention of fire he finds some safety from those monsters roaring in the surrounding dark. In a kind of dream within a dream Cashore shows his mastery of the silhouette marionette. It’s all quite beautiful.
Joe Cashore is an artist and sculptor as well as a puppeteer. He makes all his own marionettes, and not only in their movements, but also in their faces and bodies he shows a marvelous, careful attention to detail. All the faces are so expressive, the bodies more solid, more real than one expects with marionettes.
These marionettes will enchant you, will lure you into their world. But do take an occasional opportunity to lift your attention higher—and to wonder at the amazing complexity and subtlety that lie at the ends of all those strings above these little people’s heads. Cashore’s new and inventive controls for his marionettes are the mind-bogglingly complex constructions of a mad and gifted tinkerer. These countless wires, rods, shafts, strings, pulleys, swivels and weights are like an apotheosis of the geniuses of Ronald Searl’s spidery line drawings, Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, and Rube Goldberg’s demented engineering. They even have a slightly sinister aspect if you look at them too long. They’re far too complicated for a mere mortal to manage! Yet the amazing Joe Cashore manages them all to perfection (and he doesn’t even break a sweat).
Next time the show is in town you really should see the Cashore Marionettes. You won’t forget them.