Actors, puppets and marionettes bring World War II fantasy ’The Bass Saxophone’ to life

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The DUMBO-based Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre brings the age-old Czech tradition of puppet theater to the Grand Army Plaza Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch this fall with "The Bass Saxophone."

Based on the short story by Josef Skvorecky, "The Bass Saxophone" is adapted and directed by Vit Horejs, an émigré of Prague who in 1990 founded the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT).

"I grew up playing with a toy puppet theater. It was my mother’s; she had played with it as a child," Horejs told GO Brooklyn. "Throughout my childhood, I saw puppet theater."

"The Bass Saxophone" is just one of more than a dozen works written by Skvorecky that deal with the fear and disdain for music shared by oppressive rulers throughout the world. After the Soviet Army overtook the Prague Spring of 1968, Skvorecky fled to Toronto, where he later became a professor of literature at Toronto University. His books include "The Cowards" and "The Miracle Game"; his novel "Tank Battalion" was adapted for Vit Olmer’s 1991 film of the same name.

Skvorecky’s "Bass Saxophone" tells the story of a group of young jazz enthusiasts in 1944 German-occupied Czechoslovakia who risk their lives by playing what Goebels called "decadent Judeo-negroid music" (a.k.a. jazz).

One of the young men, an aspiring saxophone player and would-be womanizer named Danny, catches a glimpse of a bass saxophone being unloaded for a traveling German dance orchestra in front of a decrepit hotel and is drafted into carrying the instrument inside. In the labyrinthine hotel, he meets a bizarre Wehrmacht band of crippled and deformed musicians who ask him to jam with them - blending kitschy musical trash with Danny’s forbidden swing tunes.

"It’s like he’s in a dream," says Horejs. "It’s like a Bruegel or Bosch painting."

The characters in the play will be portrayed by live actors, eight-inch marionettes (created by Prague designer Milos Kasal) and four-foot papier-mâché direct-control musician puppets created by Theresa Linnihan. The set is provided by Roman Hladik and the Grand Army Plaza arch, a venue with a suitability Horejs says he discovered purely by accident.

"One of our members, [Linnihan], helped to establish Puppeteer’s Cooperative and its Puppet Library in one leg of the arch," said Horejs. "The other leg of the arch and the spiral staircase are empty. When I saw the inside of the arch, something clicked. The hotel setting was already there. Also the story is set during a war and the arch commemorates a war victory [of the Union Army]."

"The Bass Saxophone" begins outdoors, under the arch, and continues in the arch and up the staircase past tableaux depicting the atmosphere of the time, to the transom where the Wehrmacht musicians congregate on a canopy bed that transforms into various story locations.

The action is accompanied by live music performed by Charles Waters’ band; Waters is the musical director. The score includes international swing standards from the period, improvised music layered over the puppets’ and puppeteers’ actions and music written for the play.

Although Horejs says he didn’t want to connect his story of German Nazis with any current war, he concedes that when "talking about the horrors of war there are connections that pop up." In fact, Czech puppet theater, which traveled from village to village, often made political references - sometimes to a village scandal or local events and sometimes to the activities of the current monarch. And during the days when Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain created by the Soviets, marionette theater was suppressed or co-opted, said Horejs.

In "The Bass Saxophone," the puppets symbolize the state of humanity in wartime, when people are not masters of their own fate and music provides the antidote.

"The little puppets sometimes serve as the soul of the characters, who have inner monologues with them," says Horejs.

Skvorecky devoted most of his writings to his favorite topic, jazz. (Horejs considers Danny to be Skvorecky’s alter-ego.) But having lived under two oppressive regimes (Nazi and Communist), he came to love music not only as entertainment but also as a liberator of the human spirit. It is entirely appropriate that Skvorecky’s play be produced under the shadow of a monument commemorating the victory not only of the North over the South, but also of freedom over slavery.


The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre presents "The Bass Saxophone" Sept. 30 through Oct. 30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm (except Oct. 1) at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, located at the Grand Army Plaza intersection across from Prospect Park. (Previews are Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2.) All performances are free, but donations are encouraged. Limited seating; reservations recommended. Not recommended for children younger than 14. For reservations, call (212) 868-4444 or visit

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