Cashore Marionettes | Life in Motion

theat_puppet_sm.jpgJoseph Cashore and his wife and assistant, Wilma Cashore, construct little marvels of workmanship and function.




Feb. 27, 2009
Florissant Civic Center Theater, St. Louis


Japanese comic-book readers, we are told, are mostly adults. In the United States, comics are a modest (but growing) hobby, sometimes considered too puerile to be taken seriously. Similarly, puppeteer Joseph Cashore writes in his program notes, in Europe a long tradition of puppetry has yielded two kinds of shows, those for adults and those for kids. It’s not that the adult shows are full of nudity and murder (oh God, please, please…), just that they’re a little more sophisticated than the Punch and Judy stuff.

An American crowd got its first taste of mature-audiences puppetry when the Cashore Marionettes played the Florissant Civic Center on a cold winter night. It was puppetry at its best: elegance, pathos, stunning trickery, meta-humor, special effects and clever riffs on who’s pulling our strings made the performance just peachy.

Puppeteer Joseph Cashore, dressed in black, took the stage with his first marionette, an ancient violinist. The morose-looking little guy, about 18 inches tall, played along to recorded classical music, his frozen expression seeming to capture something of man’s quest to meet the divine.

Cashore makes all his own puppets, along with the elaborate mechanical devices that control them. Many strings—sometimes as many as two dozen, it seemed—hang down, and he makes the puppets’ motions look realistic and effortless, when in reality, as he explained after the show, sometimes it’s really challenging to coordinate so many simultaneous movements.

The vignettes included "Lullaby," in which a woman calms her kicking and squirming baby, holds him while rocking in a rocking chair, and puts him to bed in a crib. In another, a bearded mystic manages to break the fourth wall by encountering both the puppeteer and the audience. When he prays to the puppeteer as a god, it’s clever.

Perhaps the most moving episode involved a depressed-looking homeless man who combs through a park trash can, curses his fate and lies down on a bench as classical music waxes and wanes around him. It was lovely.

Later, a boy flies a kite, which rises higher and higher above the stage with the aid of an extendable rod. When he pulls the kite against the wind, he braces his body in a perfectly realistic manner.

In fact, as Cashore writes in the program notes, it was "the momentary sensation that the puppet was alive" that he experienced when playing with his first puppet as an 11-year-old that hooked him. Now, creating this illusion is his profession, and he excels at it.

The next sketch involved a teenage girl procrastinating to avoid her homework. The girl picks up objects, puts them in a pocket of her dress and removes them; it’s quite a trick for a marionette (after the show, Cashore told me the secret is concealed hooks and eyelets). Another vignette starring heavy-metal guitarist "Johnny Lobotomy" involved the puppet playing a blistering guitar solo. Toward the end, his miniature amp begins to smoke, and then actually catches fire.

One of the unforgettable highlights was a completely realistic African elephant. It waggles its ears, curls its trunk every which way, lifts a fallen tree with its trunk and places food in its mouth with its trunk and chews it. At the conclusion, the elephant moves some vegetation and uncovers an elephant skull. The piece ends in a melancholy mood; it’s definitely not for kids.

Joseph Cashore (and his wife and assistant, Wilma Cashore) constructs little marvels of workmanship and function, and performs with them up to 150 nights a year. If he comes to your city, don’t miss his adult puppet show. With a few cloying moments of Hallmark sentiment it can be precious, but the magic is in the microcosm. The suspension-of-disbelief-by-puppet is a science and an art, and at his best, Cashore enraptures us so thoroughly we forget he’s pulling our strings. | Byron Kerman

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