‘Wizard’ of blahs at Puppetworks

‘Wizard’ of blahs at Puppetworks
Photo by TA Smith

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.