Shank's Mare: Theater review by Helen Shaw
For the first time in ages, the venerable La MaMa has opened a new performance space. The Downstairs is another of the venue's brick-lined, tin-ceilinged exquisites, though this one is tucked away in the basement, a snug little wine cave where some of us sit on low benches. Before the equally miniature and enchanting Shank's Mare, two four-foot-tall Japanese puppets perform a ceremonial dance, the sanbaso, to welcome this new stage into being. The operators sit behind them on small rolling boxes—a technique known as kuruma ningyo—stamping the puppets' feet, turning the floor into sacred space by treading on it in just the right way.
Shank's Mare itself is a collaborative construction between the noted American puppeteer Tom Lee and Koryu Nishikawa V, the fifth generation Master of Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo, a Japanese troupe that has existed for 160 years. For this reason alone, go. You simply won't see better puppetry anywhere nor a tighter braiding of methods old and new nor artists working so confidently at the peak of their craft.
The story is about paths crossing. A medieval astronomer and his assistant track a comet across the heavens; a swordsman turns bandit out of grief. All wander up mountains, into snowstorms and eventually, through time. To the sounds of hammer dulcimer and flute (played beautifully by Bill Ruyle and Chieko Hara), a golden goddess occasionally sends down emissaries, like the enormous wooden stag who fixes the audience with her black gaze. A complicated model set, filmed by Chris Carcione and projected as live scenery, turns the small room into a cabinet of wonders: Clever use of point-of-view (we seem to watch through the astronomer's eyes as he turns the pages of a book) and richly imaginative lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew recall the films of Jan Švankmajer, though Lee and Nishikawa operate with tarter humor.
As with many outstanding puppet pieces, Shank's Mare invites both empathy (such sweet, resilient characters!) and the unsettling feeling that secret forces have gathered. The impassivity of the carved faces and the rustling and bustling by black-clad manipulators make us somehow receptive to the idea that we too are being handled from place to place, that we too are nudged at the back of the knee by some invisible bunraku puppeteer. Lee and Nishikawa have precisely constructed their narrative to exploit that sensation. They wrap us in notions of interconnectedness, and then, just when we're most in their spell, a puppet rises, jumps onto her desk and rings a bell, completing the kinesthetic illusion: Audience members shake their heads like animals waking up; the bell's bright summoning sound made our hearts ring with it.—Helen Shaw
La MaMa E.T.C. (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Tom Lee and Koryu Nishikawa V. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.