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‘Wizard’ of blahs at Puppetworks

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Scholars say that the Golden Age of Puppetry — the mirth, the magic, the majesty — was in early 18th-century Vienna, a period when Austro-Hungarian craftsmen, artists, and musicians came together in an epic burst of collaboration and created something great.

It was an era when puppets became legends and puppeteers became gods.

I mention those happy days as a way of introducing this mildly controversial thought: the Golden Age is dead.

The thought first occurred to me midway through the first act of Puppetworks’ disastrous production of “The Wizard of Oz” last week.

Any rendering of L. Frank Baum’s book has one vital set piece, the arrival of the tornado that kicks the plot into motion. It is a moment whose grandeur and spectacle cannot be misplayed, lest disaster strike.

But in the production I witnessed, the tornado was so inelegantly puppeted that it knocked over a scrim covering up the backdrop for the next scene — a landscape from the land of Oz.

The young tot who brought me to the show noticed something was amiss — indeed, how could Dorothy’s house, which rocked and quivered next to the cyclone, already be in the land of Oz? — but for this critic, the disappointment was far deeper.

Mistakes like that simply cannot happen in professional marionette theater, where scale and drama are actually created in the viewers’ imaginations.

I could have dismissed the error but for the larger problems with this production. This “Wizard of Oz,” of course, is based on the MGM movie classic of the same name — the seminal film that gave us Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Toto, too (and Toto, too!). Puppetworks producers retained those characters — they’re in the public domain, of course — but did not license the songs that give the movie its generational legacy.

So there’s no “Over the Rainbow,” no “If I Only Had a Brain,” no “Off to See the Wizard (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).” Instead, these and others are replaced by tawdry knock-offs.

And, perhaps the gravest sin was this: the puppeteers gave a lackluster performance that was noticeable to anyone with even a third-grader’s knowledge of puppetry tradition.

As the nation’s foremost critic of puppetry and mime, I feel unto a marionette on a string myself, forced (sometimes against my will) to play the same role in every review: “It’s puppetry, Dooley,” the editor will say. “Give it a rave and let’s move on. The kids won’t notice anyway.”

But I cannot remain silent when the proud, ancient art form to which I have dedicated my life is treated like a Medicaid mill. This is not, after all, the first time that I’ve cut the strings over Puppetworks’ sometimes uninspiring fare.

Three years ago, I was unimpressed by the theater’s production of Hansel and Gretel (“Hansel and regretal,” Sept. 2, 2008), which turned a delightful tale into a mirthless slog through maternal angst.

True, my rave over Puppetworks’ production of “Pinocchio” (“No lie: This ‘Pinocchio’ rocks,” May 10, 2008), was completely honest: the only organ that grew on my face that day was my mouth — into a broad smile.

But for the past few years, I have felt that this Park Slope institution has been cellphoning it in — an egregious sin in a medium that is so dependent on intimacy and wonder.

I hope that the owners of this once-proud theater will consider these humble thoughts, and take action before the damage to Puppetworks’ once sturdy reputation becomes irreparable.

“The Wizard of Oz” plays Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 21 at Puppetworks [338 Sixth Ave. at Fourth Street in Park Slope, (718) 965-3391] at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Tickets are $8 (adults) and $7 (kids). Call to reserve tickets.

Thurston Dooley III has been reviewing puppet theater, juggling and mime for more than three decades. He is editor emeritus at Modern Marionette and a member of the Puppet Critics Circle.

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Reader Feedback

Craig from Greenpoint says:
There is obviously no such person as "Thurston Dooley III" (see http://bit.ly/kSxEHb for proof of his non-existence) so therefore, an anonymous attack on this puppetry show cannot be defended. Gersh, why don't you just put your own byline on your reviews? Pathetic, as usual, effort from the dreadful Brooklyn Paper.

Please, someone buy this rag and put it out of its misery!!!!!!!!!!!
May 6, 2011, 4:43 pm
Tara from Park Slope says:
I was at that production and really enjoyed it. My 6 year old and his 5 year old cousin loved it. Anything can go wrong during any live production, that's part of the excitement of LIVE THEATRE. Puppetworks NEVER bases its productions on movies, but on the book the fairy tales were originally told in. The new songs were fun. You're a crank. I hope people attend Puppetworks productions and judge for themselves.
May 9, 2011, 10:30 am
Tim Lagasse from Clinton Hill says:
While Mr. Dooley is entitled to his opinion, he is not entitled to make up credentials. I have been a professional puppet artist for over 20 years, and a member of all real puppet associations, unions and guilds. "Modern Marionette" and "Puppet Critics Circle" do not exist. Mr. Dooley's assertion that he has credentials from these fake organizations undermines the good work and honest critiques of the Puppeteers of America, UNIMA, Puppetry International, and the Jim Henson Foundation, to name a few. It also renders his opinion moot. Brooklyn is full of very talented artists and writers, and I'm sure the Brooklyn Paper could find a real critic with some actual credentials and credibility, rather than this "sock-puppet" Dooley.
May 9, 2011, 2:30 pm
Cathy from Park Slope says:
I'm shocked by the inaccuracies in this article. Credentials aside (I do not have the time to look into that), the writer states “This “Wizard of Oz,” of course, is based on the MGM movie classic of the same name” which everyone who has ever been to shows at Puppetworks knows is never the case. Puppetworks always bases their productions on the original stories, not the Hollywood movie versions. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as written by L. Frank Baum was published in 1900, nearly 40 years before the movie came out. He then chides them for failing to license the songs – I hope I do not need to point out that the books had no songs…
Who is this fool Thurston Dooley III and why are you giving print to such an obvious hack trashing a neighborhood treasure?
May 10, 2011, 1:40 pm
Knows from Brooklyn says:
Thurston's writing... is as flat as a Coney Island Whitefish.
Aug. 18, 2011, 5:15 pm
Ronnie from Canada says:
Wow. Complete crap, huh? No such man exists, nor do his "associations". Seems someone on your staff a) hates puppets, and b) is a coward.
May 19, 2012, 12:04 am

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