Monday, February 28, 2011

'Puppets' is an important part of Cultural Corridor

by Joe Jennison

I was reminded again Friday night of why I choose to live and work in Iowa’s Cultural Corridor.

Friday night was the opening night of one of my favorite annual events: Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre’s Puppets and Pastries Dessert Theatre for Adults. The event is designed to showcase the work of several local artists, including puppeteers, and allows adult patrons the opportunity to indulge in the enjoyment of the art of puppetry while simultaneously sipping wine and eating chocolate torte. The event takes place at the Owl Glass Puppetry Center, 319 N. Calhoun St., West Liberty, and attracts a large cross-section of performers and audience members, all of whom seem to love the performing arts.

If you were to wander into the Owl Glass Puppetry Center for this event, you would find a long room set up cabaret-style, with several café tables facing a small stage. The storefront’s windows are blocked by a black velvet curtain, which sits behind the Center’s performance space. The room around that stage is painted a bright, cheerful yellow, and the walls are covered in prints of posters in vibrant blues and greens and reds. Those posters document more than 35 years of puppet shows designed for children, with titles such as The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Fisherman and His Wife and The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

At Friday night’s show, there were no children present, just a group of eight seasoned performers, any one of whom could carry an entire evening on their own. I have been to this event several times now, and knew from just a look at the list of performers that I was about to experience something special.

First up were veteran bluegrass performers Bob and Kristie Black. The Blacks, married since 1990, perform throughout the area and beyond, and have developed a style and onstage performance shorthand that is both fascinating to watch and a joy to listen to. Both are songwriters, and both have a clear understanding of the classic bluegrass catalogue. With Bob on banjo and Kristie on guitar, the duo went from classics to originals and back again. They began with Bill Monroe’s “Come Hither to Go Yonder” and ended with Ernest Tubb’s “Mean Old Bedbug Blues.” In between, the twosome sang and played their own pieces and told stories of their life together. These performers are indeed local treasures and the joy they obviously have in the work is clear and captivating and infectious.

Next up was storyteller Susan Short Gilbert who told a wonderful story from her high school years. Titled Glory Days, the story, told in two parts, very comically and dramatically told the story of “an incident” from the late 60s that her family describes as the moment where she developed a backbone. She told the story very professionally and simply, describing how that in just four short years at a Catholic high school, she went from shy and awkward and picked on, to empowered and strong and respected. Her style is so incredibly personal that at her show, one is not an audience member but rather a trusted confidante – very intimate.

Laura Kittrell performed next on a synthesizer singing a comic version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory.” The song, written from the perspective of someone struggling with senior moments, was a real crowd favorite – perhaps a comment on our ages? -- with lines such as “What the heck is that guy’s name? He sings with me in the Choir. Did I leave both burners on, or is my house on fire?” Very funny.

The first half of the evening ended with A Light Draw by Dave Morice, a puppet show performed by Monica Leo and Teri Jean Breitbach. One of the first pieces done by Eulenspiegel in the 1970s, the play introduced Alfred Schultz, a puppet character that has become a signature character for Eulenspiegel. He showed up later as well, twice, as a stick puppet and a hand puppet, as Leo performed a new piece titled How It All Began, which told the story of Eulenspiegel’s early history. Leo and Breitbach too share an onstage rapport that can only be the result of years of performing together, and the reunion of the duo on this stage was clearly a crowd favorite. How wonderful to see them perform together again.

My favorite piece of the evening was an original play by Amy White. Titled Teachers’ Lounge, the play concerned an English teacher whose lunch has been eaten by one of his colleagues. Alone in the lounge, he retaliates by pulling his colleagues’ lunches out of the refrigerator, and lining each lunch up on a table centerstage. Out of frustration and anger, he has a series of conversations using each lunch as a puppet of sorts to represent each teacher. This was an extremely well-written and well-acted piece of theater, wonderfully performed by Jeff White, the writer’s son, who portrayed all five characters and voices. In the short piece, writer and actor worked well together to make a comment not only about one person’s view of working at a high school, but also a larger statement about public education in general.

The evening ended with Breitbach, Gilbert, Kittrell and Leo onstage with kazoos singing “Here’s To Professor Pickle and His Jolly Puppet Show,” an original song written especially for Eulenspiegel. The song contains a very funny veiled reference to a “certain part of Professor Pickle’s anatomy,” certainly not something to share with Eulenspiegel’s matinee crowd. The group traditionally ends their annual Dessert Theatre with this song and it never ceases to make me giggle. These four performers seemed to be having as much fun, if not more, than the audience who had come to see them.

The evening reminded me of the absolute joy that is performance art: Puppets, theater, bluegrass, cabaret, wine, chocolate and kazoos – how lucky we are to have all this talent in one place, and all of these people who are willing to share said talent with us. I walked away reminded again of not only the talent available in the area, but rather, about how regularly that talent is given the opportunity and encouragement to get out onto a local stage and share through performance.

I’m sure that many of the performers mentioned above will be a part of an upcoming benefit performance for Teri Jean Breitbach Saturday, May 21, at the Mill in Iowa City. Find out more through (319) 627-2487. And mark your calendar for their next show, Coyote's Eyeball, which will be performed Saturday, April 16.


Linley said...

Puppets and Pastries is a true gem. West Liberty can be very proud of Monica Leo and the Eulenspiegel Puppets that have brought great entertainment over the years. I was there that night and I agree, such an array of talent that left us all awash in shared merriment.

Heidi said...

My husband and I went to this on Saturday night. My husband really liked the performance of Jeff White also. I really loved Bob Black's song about the lady asian beetles. The ending (Mr. Pickles)was perfect and we enjoyed ourselves so much!

Anonymous said...

Driving back to Iowa City after Puppets and Pastries, my wife confide that she had every part of the program.

I had to concur.

Monica has many talented friends and of course it was very special to
see Terri Jean perform again!

It was wonderful evening of
great entertainment.