This past Friday, over 100 people crammed into the music building’s lesser known Studio Theatre for what may be the most underrated event of year: the UConn Winter Puppet Slam, which made an art form that many people think of as close to extinction seem on the cutting edge.
The night featured works by professionals such as Boston-based dancer and puppeteer Bonnie Duncan, Professor John O’Donnell and University of Connecticut puppet arts alumnus Jim Napolitano. School of Fine Arts graduate and undergraduate students also performed their work, including sixth-semester graduate student in the puppet arts program Kat Folker and fourth-semester graphic design major Ed Ho. While their pieces varied greatly, nearly every performance set out to upend the audience’s expectations.
Ho’s piece “Puppet Technology Convention” excelled in its simplicity and meta-aspects. Ho took the stage slumped in a chair and clad in all white and a white mask reminiscent of chainsaw maniac Halloween costumes. More importantly, Ho had his left hand with a finger puppet extended above him. The bit goes somewhat like a TED talk as the scientist/finger puppet presents his groundbreaking headband that lets him control his giant puppet: a human boy.
Ho employed pop-culture into his performance without overstating the references to the audience’s enjoyment. For example, the scientist explained that he could make the puppet look “sad, angry and lit” and that they come in various sizes including “small, medium, thicc and large.” Also, Ho trips, lunges and flings himself across the stage, demonstrating the extreme effort it takes for the scientist to operate the device.
Ho took his humor up a level with the final line of his act. “Maybe we can get so good that we can make it look like these puppets are controlling other puppets,” Ho said. Then, the scientist looked out into the audience and shivered at the thought.
O’Donnell, in his performance piece “Ghost of a Wall,” took a completely different approach, but was just as successful. O’Donnell emerged onto the stage in a bulky brick patterned cloak and with brick patterned boxes for shoes. He danced in front the brick wall behind him for most of the performance, taking off layers of the costume until he is wearing an entirely new blue costume.
Just when this appears to be an uneventful, uninteresting performance, O’Donnell performs what can only be described as magic on the stage. As he blew air into a bag, his blue suit filled with air. This unexpected, playful and amazingly nonsensical twist proved to be the delightful shock that his performance needed to make it great to watch.
Sonja Nichols, second-semester illustration major, particularly enjoyed O’Donnell’s performance piece. “John O’Donnell I loved,” Nichols said, “I loved the reveal of the pillars.”
However, Duncan’s “Seraphina” stole the show. With a tilted table top, expert lighting, and her bare hands, Duncan told a compelling and unconventional story that combined a romance gone wrong crossed, a thrilling heist, a fight for survival and ultimately a hair-raising tale of self-discovery.
And if you are not impressed, she achieved all of this without uttering a single word, but rather, she expressed the impressive range of emotions through her own muscle control and carefully coordinated light changes. In “Seraphina,” Duncan took a oftentimes underwhelming technique and made it shine.
Possibly more impressive than any performance alone is the fact that you can put a professional who has performed across New England like Duncan alongside undergraduate level students like Ho and have neither disappoint. This impressive feat speaks to UConn’s fine arts programs and faculty.
Second-semester theatre studies major Alexandra Ose felt this as well. “I know most of them and I was very excited and very proud,” said Ose.
If you’re a person who likes to be entertained, look out for the Ballard Institute’s next puppetry slam in the fall.
Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.