Adventures of a Semi-Wild Animal Tamer

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Review of Stellaluna at the Center for Puppetry Arts

Sat, Feb 15th, 2020 at 12:09 AM

Having read the promotional materials for the Center for Puppetry Arts' newest show, Stellaluna, I decided to go down to the Center and check it out. The promise of a show making more use of the available stage space than ever before combined with the use of overt puppetry and a cast of rod puppets intrigued me to say the least.

Arriving at the Center's main stage theater for the show, I was greeted with a lush forest scene that immediately drew me into the world of the story. Bushes and trees had been carefully placed to provide places for the characters to sit and act out their parts, yet there was plenty of open space, all carpeted in a pleasant green that gives the feel grass. A pale blue backdrop across the entire back of the stage creates the appearance of a clear blue sky beyond the trees.

As the show starts, all five performers come out dressed as explorers and inform us that they are chiropterologists, or bat scientists. Quickly they introduce Stellaluna, who offers to tell us her story, which opens with an owl attacking her mother when she was a baby clinging to her mother's chest. While she tries to hang on tight, she ultimately loses her grip and falls into a bird's nest. On cue, a pair of tree tops rise up to let us see the bird's nest underneath where Stellaluna ultimately lands. There, she meets Flap, Pip, and Flitter, three baby birds who know nothing about bats, just as Stellaluna knows nothing about birds.

Stellaluna ends up trying to live like a bird, at least until she and her bird siblings are able to fly. Soon after, they explore the jungle and Stellaluna finds her mother and learns that she is a bat, and that the bat-like things she always felt more comfortable with (hanging upside down, sleeping during the day, not eating insects) are exactly what a fruit bat should be doing. The story ends with an attempt by Stellaluna to show her bird friends what its like to be a bat, only they really can not see to fly at night, but she manages to get them to safety when an owl swoops in looking for a meal. In the end, they reflect on how they seem so similar yet so different, and wonder how they still manage to get along so well. Stellaluna answers that it is the power of friendship.

For those not familiar with the term "overt" puppetry, this simply means that the puppeteers are not hidden from sight as is common with many forms of puppetry. Instead, we see them throughout the performance, which makes it possible for them to fly the birds and bats all around without having to work out ways of keeping themselves out of sight. There are other possible options for a story like Stellaluna, such as using a czech black performance style, or perhaps even staging the show with marionettes, but each would have definite drawbacks: it would be hard to capture the forest so beautifully with czech black, and it would be challenging to show depth of flight if performing from a bridge above the stage.

The puppets are all a bit larger than life, but this seems to work well to keep the audience's attention focused on them, and not on the performers behind them. The eyes were also nice and large, making them easy to see from at least six rows back in the audience, which also helps to draw the audience into the characters. Large eyes are important with the style of rod puppets being used, as there did not appear to be much use of moving mouths, the primary head movements being rotation at the neck. Still, when combined with good eyes, good body poses and movements, and good voices, the characters felt perfectly believable.

Lighting and sound are always important in large-scale performances, and both were well orchestrated to enhance the performance of Stellaluna. The characters could always be seen well, even during night scenes, which were indicated heavily through darkening the blue backdrop more than the overall stage, a clever trick that helps both performers and the audience. While the show did not feature any lyrical songs, there was plenty of ambient sound and background score to keep the audience engaged and in the right mood.

Based on flipping through a copy of the Stellaluna storybook, which was written by Janell Cannon and first published in 1993, the Center's version seems to follow the original very closely - perhaps too closely. When adapting written stories, there's always the challenge where that which works on the written page may not work as well when turned into a visual performance. The original story ends almost abruptly with the moral about friendship, yet I've looked at enough storybooks to know this is not an uncommon technique. In the world of the picture storybook, the story can't get too complex, and the simple, direct ending is an easy way of driving home the important moral.

The problem is, in a live show, dropping off so quickly can feel too abrupt. After the last line about friendship and "The End", I experienced a few awkward moments of thinking "That's it?" and expecting something more. Okay, technically there was a little more: a surprise five minute exercise session led by the puppeteer of Stellaluna, getting the kids up out of their seats and flapping their 'wings'. (I have to give her credit for being able to lead the kids with that level of energy after thirty minutes of puppeteering the lead character - I wish I still had that kind of energy!) And, as usual, there was a five minute talk about the style of puppetry and the puppets used in the show.

Still, reflecting back on the performance, I think the addition of an action-filled final owl attack, which isn't in the original story, made the simplistic ending feel too simplistic in comparison. I've wondered if drawing out the ending, with a little more back-and-forth between Stellaluna and the birds before she offers her revelation about friendship would help. That could convey a sense that Stellaluna has to think for a while before reaching her conclusion, instead of it seeming to come right off the tip of her tongue almost too easily.

Overall, though, the Center's production of Stellaluna was everything I have come to expect from them, providing a wonderfully immersive and energetic experience. One would be hard-pressed to find such professionally designed entertainment elsewhere in Atlanta for a mere $25.

Mood: cheerful