Friday, April 29, 2005

The Cabinet

Last weekend Ben and I went to see Redmoon’s production of The Cabinet, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and directed by our friend the wildly imaginative and talented Frank Maugeri. For those of you not lucky enough to live in Chicago, Redmoon is a local theater company – well, I feel like any words I could think of to describe it would fail to do it justice. I grew up on Bil Baird puppets in New York and loved them, and I even had a beautiful puppet theater of my own that my dad had built, but until I saw Redmoon I had no idea that I had such a limited idea of what a puppet was. I remember one of the first times I saw a Redmoon show, it was a production of Frankie and Johnny, and Frank did a little show before the show, using a small vintage suitcase for a set, and if I recall correctly, a baby doll for at least one of the puppets. And I remember being completely mesmerized by the fact Frank was able to manipulate this baby doll (which, you know, came with one face) to express profoundly deep levels of feeling. And afterward, thinking, “I wonder if Frank just sees every inanimate object as a possible puppet?” Over the years, I’ve never seen a Redmoon show that failed to delight (you just can’t forget a show that includes babies falling out of ironing boards and dresser drawers and kitchen cabinets), but The Cabinet was definitely one of my favorites. The ability to use these puppets to express real human feeling is as strong and complex as ever, and the level of detail in this production was simply incredible. My favorite was the sweater worn by Cesare (the somnambulist who gets manipulated into committing murder while he sleeps by the scientist) – you could say it was just one more example of the detail in the show, but to me it was almost like the sweater showed Cesare’s angst as much as his movements or his face. It was dark and small and bunched up and sweet and sad. And if you think you could not be moved by a tiny sweater, that is as good a reason as any I can think of to go see this show.
(The Cabinet is now playing through Sunday, June 5 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard Street. Call 312-850-8440 x112 for tickets or order online at www.

EC: How does a guy get into puppets?

FM: My training is in animation and sculpture, and my path to puppetry was simply an effort to combine these interests... Image, narrative, motion and objects. I had some interest in puppetry as a young man (Rankin Bass, Animatronics, Ray Harrehausen) but no interest in theater, or puppet theater. I was inspired by comics, and rough illustrators like Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Ted McKeever, Frank Miller, as well as giants like Dali, Botero, Bosch... you know, the maniacs and monsters of art. I was also grounded in Dadaism... Which for many artists meant the development of narrative and symbol by combining multiple mundane objects into new forms and new images... This would prove to be an attraction and interest that bleeds into puppetry later. In addition, I studied film in school, so I was always thinking about cinema, how images work, how composition works, how placement of things, people, space all work – I was inspired by more avant-garde makers, Bunuel, Kubrick, Welles, Wenders, Lynch and Lang.

I saw some puppetry by a group, Hystopolis, in Chicago... The Adding Machine, in the 90's, and that is when it hit me... You could actualize a dreamlike surreal object-based narrative that depended and used surprise, tricks, mechanics, wonder, motion, technology to create something moving, meaningful, and/or shocking. This work used all the technologies I was familiar with... mask making, object construction, graphic novel-like storytelling, narrative, symbol, etc... and I realized this could be a way for me to reach a greater audience with my ideas.

I did most of my initial work in toy theater (flat puppets, small theater) which allowed me to create spectacle in miniature. People liked the work, I made many small, dirty, cheap, fast shows, produced by myself, anywhere I could, to any audience possible, to get feedback, notes, and ideas. I saw a great deal of work, as much as I could and slowly built a library of knowledge and inspiration – William Kentridge, Janie Geiser, Green Ginger, Basil Twist, Figuren Theatre, Roman Paska, Faulty Optic, Great Small Works, Bread and Puppet, Sandglass, etc... as well as filmmakers working in a style I liked, that I could translate and use for inspiration, brothers Quay and Svenkmeyer.

I found that I had skill at helping actors learn to move objects in a symbolic way, to use gesture in a powerful manner, to bring a dead thing to life. Also, I found I could develop images of beauty and poetry through object composition, and this was interesting, and is what led me to Joseph Cornell’s work. I studied his sensibility of placing objects in space in a meticulous way to capture and develop mood, feeling, idea, and story.

EC: How much of a project like this is Frank’s vision vs. a collaboration? I’m thinking specifically about the fact that attention to detail seems extraordinary, as opposed to productions where it all seems to be about size – let’s make it bigger! Whereas I personally feel so much more impressed by the precision here – it seems that not one detail was left unconsidered.

FM: The detail comes from many areas.

I have always been meticulous in my making of worlds. I am careful, precise, attentive. I love aesthetic and continuity and small items which return people to view things many times.

Toy theater is all about detail, creating entire universes... down to the most minute detail.

It is also the result of film study, especially the early horror and sci-fi film works, so detailed in their completeness and reality.

And it is a Cornell influence, a sculptural rule... don’t use anything that does not mean something, but use as much as needed to mean something, and place it carefully... spiritually, I always tell actors.

Each show is a shrine. Every performance is a ritual. The placement of things, the motion of objects, and the study of environment are fundamental to the "religion."

In the creation of this work, one of the primary rules which drove the work was detail.

Now, of course, it was collective. The work was very collaborative. We would storyboard together, brainstorm, etc... We would look at images, add details, discuss symbol, argue about notions, and push the work together. It was very much a team effort.

And the performers are detail folks. They are attentive. They like things perfect. They all have dance background, which I think breeds such focus and quality of intention and attention. They want to make the world exact. I commend them for that.

EC: Who the hell made that tiny little sweater for Cesare? Does somebody knit a thing like that? Do you have one costumer for the people and the puppets, or are puppet makers and costumers two different things? (I suppose this relates back to the collaboration question to some extent...)

FM: They were 2 different folks in this case... someone made people costumes, someone made puppet costumes... I prefer to work this way. Yes, someone handmakes it all... everything we do is handmade... real art.

EC: What about this particular project spoke to you on a personal level?

FM: There is a three-part reason:

I am interested in madness. What happens to someone when they are overcome by delusion, pathology, terror, and evil. I worked for years in a group home, with many criminals who committed violent murders, to family members mainly. They were medicated, their rehabilitation was a powerful experience to observe. When they were mad, and when they were sane, was sometimes indistinguishable... and the reasons for the killings, the delusions, the voices, and the potential innocence simultaneous with a vicious crime is deeply fascinating. The film and subject matter of the film flirted with this.

The film itself is awesome, weak on narrative, great on style. I did a reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M which people loved (or hated). Grown men playing with dolls to tell the story of a child murderer. Very shocking, and important. This came from the same place... adults playing with dolls to present a story of a grotesque nature.

And the translation of film to puppetry, the challenge of capturing scale, movement, many scenes and images. Very exciting.

EC: I’m wondering how and when a director is able to divorce themselves from a piece like this enough to go home and watch a movie with his wife, without worrying that say, a candle won’t set fire to a curtain, or if a transparency will get stuck, etc. I’m curious for a few reasons, one, because writing is such a different art form than theater – aside from occasional readings, I don’t get to be there taking in people’s experiences of my work, but at least I know the words on the page are guaranteed to remain as I wanted them. The other reason is, it struck me that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flub at a Redmoon show, even though it seems like there would be opportunities at every turn. Is this because you rehearse and rehearse until there’s just no chance of failure? Or threaten your actors with bodily harm if they screw up?

FM: There is always concern... It is a fragile show. But you learn a lot in rehearsal. Safety is essential, and most mistakes and problems are discovered in that time. But stuff goes wrong. You have to have faith. It’s a technical work, we are a designer’s theater, there will be problems. The performers must be trained to enjoy these accidents, it is live, and they should be surprised by its route, the show, like life, has many paths. The questions are more important than the answers.

I get upset when something goes wrong, but usually only I know the problem. It’s par for the course. Yes I worry a lot. But I try to be where I am when I am there, just like in rehearsal.

Performing in puppet theater (and this is why I like it so much) is meditation... You must be totally focused and totally aware and totally conscious and totally submerged in a dream... you must be everywhere all the time... in your body, in the cabinet, in the space, in the universe... It is transcendental.

These guys are great performers. I trust them (and there have been ones I don't trust). I work hard in rehearsal to build community, dialogue, trust, usually through humor, love, acts of kindness, friendship. I build a bond with them, I hope through inspiration. I want people to understand the power of the work – I am not fucking around or wasting time, I am dealing with myth, and magic, and metaphor, and meaning, and power, and love and fear... humanity. And doing this through image, which is intense, for the mind of the viewer. These guys are reminded of this all the time. They get it. They like it.

I often cast based on many things, but one in particular, a secret, is I look for searchers... I am not interested in folks who have found the thing, their thing, I want spiritual people who are digging through life, exploring big questions with real heart, and mindfulness... they like ambiguity and trial and difficulty. They are searchers. Maybe I am full of it, but I can sense that in someone, and it’s invaluable, powerful, important. Their eyes are wide open. Like their hearts. They don’t want to miss anything, like a kid.

EC: Could you ever have imagined the success of Redmoon?

I am not the right one for that question. Because yes, I can. We are unique. We work hard. We are interested in celebrating the imagination. We are interested in universal material. We want folks to dig deep, and play. We care about the human spirit. And we are cool. We are wild. We are hip. We don’t fit in. We continue to surprise. We have all the right ingredients.

EC: What was it like to be on the cover of Time Out? (I only made the inside…)

FM: Funny. I look bloated. I was so tired. In the end, it did not mean that much. You think, wow, this will be hot, but then it’s like whatever, nothing changed, phones not ringing off the hook. It was good for ticket sales, that makes me happy. I started to drink less coffee, hoping the swelling in my eyes would decrease.

EC: Can you believe how dang lucky we are?

FM: Yes. I get to do the thing I wanted to do when I was boy, the thing I loved, as a dear friend always said... your dream career is the made up of the things you would love to do on Saturday afternoons as a child. I won.

EC: Right on! So did I!

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