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Full Steam Ahead

by John Rodat on April 20, 2011

Tanglewood Marionettes
Steamer No. 10 Theatre, April 19

It begins with a mea culpa, of sorts. Though Steamer No. 10 Theatre, the “little theatre that could,” is in its 20th year of operation, my visit for the Monday performance of the Tanglewood Marionettes’ The Dragon King was my first. I don’t know how that happened.

In fact, when reserving tickets, I mistakenly, though sincerely, told the helpful and cheery operator that I had been to the theater in the past. (I mean, I must have been. Right?) It’s a mysterious oversight on my part I am glad has been rectified.

The quaint and faintly fantastic space has been staging varied and community-inclusive shows since 1991, after a two-year, $300,000 renovation transformed the former firehouse into a 120-seat proscenium theater. It is perhaps appropriate that the castle-like building (with drawbridge!) is also home to the Albany Police Department’s 6th Precinct headquarters. Every keep needs a dungeon, after all.

On Monday (April 18), as part of the theater’s Vacation Daze children’s programming series, Steamer No. 10 hosted the Tanglewood Marionettes, a troupe who also fit into “the little X that could” formulation: Founders and puppeteers Anne Ware and Peter Schaefer travel with a self-contained and really ingenious marionette stage with its own lighting and sound system, performing classic tales drawn from fairy tales and myths. The precision of their stagecraft and performance is an impressive thing to behold–and an easy thing to behold, as the puppeteers are positioned above the stage in full view of the audience.

The Dragon King, itself, is drawn from Chinese folk tales: The grandmother of a family living in a drought-stricken village travels to see the Dragon King, who controls the rainfall, and encounters fantastic creatures along the way. Though it is a traditional tale, in this production the troupe has imbued The Dragon King with a post-Finding Nemo wit that is warm and appropriate. The kids in the audience were clearly delighted and fully engaged. As were, I believe, the adults.

The dexterity and coordinated skill of the puppeteers was almost balletic. I was, frankly, bowled over at the physical expressiveness drawn out of the puppets. Though the faces of the marionettes are static, the puppeteers did wonders establishing differentiated characters; in part, by the voice acting in the pre-recorded dialog, but more remarkably by the subtle manipulation of the puppets themselves. To watch the grandmother sit, wearily, was to feel the aches in one’s one knees. (Which, thanks to a concise 50-minute run time, wasn’t an issue in any way other than dramatic.)

The Vacation Daze presentations continue through Friday (April 22). Check Steamer No. 10’s website (steamer10theater.org) for details on that and other upcoming programming.