According to Jim “Nappy” Napolitano, St. Nick had some soul-searching to do before he took on the mantle as Santa.
Performed using cardboard shadow puppets moved by road and wire “Santa Got Fired and Other Silly Stories” tells the harrowing tale of Santa’s journey through his life and variety of (failed) careers, including jobs as a chimney sweep, a postal service worker, a waiter and a crocodile dentist. Interspersed with a few funny rhymes, songs and vignettes, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry’s final fall show on Saturday had seats packed and the audience giggling with delight.
Silliness, indeed, was the main hallmark of Napolitano’s creativity, as he turned standard nursery rhymes such as “Little Jack Horner” to the absurd—the protagonist, when he sticks his thumb, pulls out not a plumb, but, in succession, a Pokémon, an opera singer, and a certain red, loveable puppet from Sesame Street whose name was not mentioned due to “copyright issues,” which drew a laugh from the adults in the room.
As well, the show contained several cameos from a hippopotamus, both dancing in a tutu in one song and carting around 27 ducks in a pyramid in “Five Little Ducks.”
This style of humor, which Napolitano calls “comic incongruity,” is prevalent in older children’s shows such as “Sesame Street,” but is scarcer today.
“I don’t think we get enough of silly zany absurdity,” Napolitano said. “I try and work on two levels: adults, and kid humor.”
A UConn Puppetry Arts alumnus, and a 20-year-old veteran of puppet show business, Napolitano attributes much of what he’s learned about puppetry to his fellow arts students, as well as the motivation he received from his professors.
“The puppetry program [gave] me encouragement and hope that I could do my own thing,” Napolitano said. “If you’re willing to hustle, then you can make a living (in puppetry.)”
In addition to the humor, the performance included a brief tutorial on shadow puppetry, and how audience members could make their own shadow puppets using cardboard and a flashlight at home.
“People all over the world have a tradition of shadow theater,” Napolitanos said. “Shadows are so very visual, and you don’t have to do a lot. They just have to be there.”
Show puppetry was just one of the many mediums showcased throughout the Ballard’s fall season, which included everything from traditional marionettes to mascots.
“This season had an especially great variety,” Ballard manager of operations and collections Emily Wicks said. “We want to introduce audiences to new performances. Nappy’s Puppets was a nice example of shadow puppetry, which is a tradition in puppetry.”
The performance left the crowd cheerful, as both children and adults alike laughed over the show’s jokes.
“It was lots of fun, lots of laughs, and very festive,” Manchester, Conn. resident Tracy Shorts said, who attended with her husband and two children. “Now that it’s holiday time, we thought we’d do something special.”
The show ended with Santa, recently fired from his job as a human cannonball, encountering a squad of toy-making elves, who asked him to use his skills in chimney-navigation, delivery, cookie-baking, reindeer-handling and flying to help deliver their crafts to the children of the world, a happy conclusion with a moral about learning from failure.
As the Ballard’s season draws to a close, and the institute starts its fourth year of operation, Wicks said that she hopes to keep expanding the museum’s audience and attendance with next year’s season.
“We’re still gathering our followers,” Wicks said. “We’re seeing returning people, so we get to know our audience.”
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.