What is a puppet?
In general, it is an object, animated by a person, to convey a story to an audience. A puppet can be almost anything from a cap of cloth on a finger, to a sock on a hand, to a paper cutout behind a screen, to a construction of cloth and foam, to a highly detailed and articulated sculpture. It can even be an everyday item given life by a puppeteer.
In the past, it was generally considered undesirable for a puppeteer to be seen; it would break the illusion. As the professor said in The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Puppets were generally manipulated from above by strings (marionettes), or below by rods (rod or shadow puppets). Then, as the use of puppets has become more integrated into theater with live actors in shows as varied as The Lion King, Avenue Q, and War Horse, the actors manipulating them have become intentionally visible. In the current revival of Into the Woods on Broadway, Milky White is an incredibly expressive life-sized puppet whose handler breaks down in tears when the cow (SPOILER) dies (temporarily). And there have always been types of puppetry — ventriloquism comes to mind — where puppeteers interact directly with their creations.
Alex and Olmsted’s Milo the Magnificent — the Jim Henson Foundation Grant–awarded production based in Takoma Park and currently playing at the Puppet Co. Playhouse in Glen Echo Park — combines many of these elements and traditions and comes up with something unique.
The basic premise is that Milo “the Magnificent” is a would-be magician.
He is also a flat body attached to the chest of puppeteer Alex Vernon. His hands and feet are Alex’s, attached to pink pinstriped arms and legs that extend from Milo’s small but natty torso, allowing him to gesture, dance, and throw his hands up in alarm, which it turns out he has to do quite often. His head is an emoji-like circle with multiple semi-circular flaps that are flipped up or down to rapidly reveal Milo’s various expressions, like nervousness, concentration, triumph, and shock. The puppeteer animating him is wearing a black velvet “morph suit” (full bodysuit), making him just barely visible against the black stage curtains.
But there is another barely visible figure lurking in the darkness, who performs Milo’s magic tricks. When Milo uses his wand to make balls hover in midair and disappear from one table on stage and reappear on another, it is this second puppeteer who moves them. There is something cute about being able to see how the magic works. But after a while, even the children in the audience may be thinking, “Well, OK, but is that it?”
And then weird and wonderful things start to happen.
First, Milo, with his human hands, demonstrates how he is going to make some shadow puppets, the typical dog, duck, and bunny… but then the shadows start becoming far more complex than a single hand or pair of hands can produce. The dog is more detailed, the bunny is bulkier… and when a set of wiggling fingers becomes a nest full of birds being fed by their mother, and then a fully articulated carousel like the one in the park outside, we realize there is something funny going on. The second puppeteer is playing tricks behind the screen, manipulating complex shadow puppets, not merely fingers.
She (Sarah Olmsted Thomas) controls many other puppets who interact with Milo as well —among them an operatic automaton, and a long-suffering mouse assistant who gets shot from a cannon, sawn in half, and rocketed into space. In an even weirder twist, she animates Milo’s disembodied arm, which teleports from one side of the stage to the other and then escapes and gets into an argument with its erstwhile owner.
Later, Milo is changing the size of objects like his ball — until the bunny plays the trick on him, and he morphs into a tiny marionette being chased around the stage by other puppets.
All the time, the two puppeteers are playing with the concept of whether they are visible or not — while they are “secretly” manipulating the puppets, they are also reacting to the action along with Milo, rising and falling with the levitating ball, and even dancing to the music.
The music — seemingly played on an old-fashioned suitcase record-player center stage — adds its own charm to the show. Every moment is carefully choreographed to it. During the dancing, it is ’20s Charleston Jazz, which highlights the vaudevillian flavor of Milo’s act. But the rest of the time, it is archetypal ’50s elevator music, taken from an album called Music for TV Dinners. It is cheesy, nostalgic, and perfect.
The show clearly delights the under-fives in the audience, but like all the best children’s entertainment, it provides jokes for the grown-ups as well. When the shadow-puppet bunny emerges from behind the screen, it is at first adorable, but soon it attacks Milo, à la Monty Python’s “Killer Rabbit.” (Not to worry — it came out after the show in the care of Olmsted and meekly allowed itself to be petted by the children in the audience.) And one delightful visual joke occurs when the spaceship detours and hits moon-faced Milo in the eye — a reference to the iconic man-in-the-moon image from Georges Méliès’ 1902 short film Le Voyage dans la Lune for cinema history buffs. Other jokes await the adults in the display cases outside the theater, particularly a marionette consisting of a pair of legs supporting a tray holding a liquor glass — named, of course, “Tom Collins.”
All in all, Alex and Olmsted’s Milo the Magnificent is a treat for the little ones, and for the adults, an innovative romp through the nature and paradoxes of puppetry itself. It is clear why Alex and Olmsted have the Henson Foundation’s support — their work is a delight that pushes the boundaries of the art.
Running time: Approximately 60 minutes.
Alex and Olmsted’s Milo the Magnificent plays through September 30, 2022 — Thursdays and Fridays at 10:30 am, Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 am and 1 pm — at the Puppet Co. Playhouse, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo, MD. Tickets ($15) are available online. (No ticket is required for those under age 2, but call the Box Office to reserve a free ticket.) For information call 301-634-5380 or email Box.Office@thepuppetco.org.
Recommended ages 4+.
September 18 at 11:30 am will be sensory friendly.*
September 24 at 11:30 am will be additionally socially distanced.*
(This production has no spoken words, so there will not be an ASL-interpreted performance.)
COVID Safety: All those over the age of 2 are required to mask inside at all times.
*At all special event performances, all patrons over the age of 5 need to show proof of vaccination for admission. For more information, see FAQs here.