Hanne Tierney's My Life in a Nutshell at the HERE Arts Center is anything but a nutshell full of material. The ambitious puppet play outgrows its title from the very start, both in content (veritable geometry lesson in love, jealousy, and death) and in form: invisible wires bring human-sized puppets to life, rising from the darkness in front. My Life in a Nutshell is the latest installment in the HERE Center's Dream Music Puppetry Program, which receives funding from the Jim Henson Foundation. Upon entering the small theater, which is specially rigged to host puppet shows, I could see five or so clumps of what looked like cloth on the darkened stage. There were also two lengths of black PVC piping and an octahedron a little larger than a basketball made of metal in the background.
I didn't think too much of any of it, so was very surprised when the apparently formless piles of fabric rose up into human shapes to become the characters in the play. Tierney's ambition as a puppeteer can be easily taken for granted as she makes the mechanics behind the play seem look so easy (they are anything but), and it's truly a joy to watch her in action. Couple this aspect of the production with the sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, and always surprising script and one is left with a production that doesn't disappoint for what it intends to be. My Life In A Nutshell is only truly limited by its form, which requires a lot of imagination to fill in the blanks, but in today's over-mediated environment this is a refreshing and welcome challenge for the audience.
The puppets are made of stuffed burlap, have no real faces to speak of, and wear doll-like wigs, a combination that creates a truly featureless mannequin look that's further intensified by the disembodied voice of Tierney narrating the play and doing the voices of the characters even as she maneuvers the players. The puppets are outlines of human beings; the shape are there and they're about the right size, but there's nothing inside the lines, and aside from a few choice articles of clothing (a pair of suspenders here, some shoes, a bra there) we're left to imagine the wardrobes of our choosing. This feeling is amplified by the fact that Tierney identifies her players only as letters (from A to E), allowing us to plug any person at all into the equation, furthering the love-as-geometry-equation metaphor that forms the basis of her show.
The puppets' unusual and unexpected movement are created with a complicated counterweight system, visible at stage left and controlled by Tierney and two assistants, allowing for movements that are surprisingly similar to human behavior. Where traditional marionette shows place the puppeteers above the stage, allowing them to move the puppets across it, Tierney's vision serves more as a set piece, relying on the narration to fill in the gaps where the puppets might need to physically interact. Although some of the dancing and levitating seems a little frivolous and feels more like Tierney added it because she could, I kept reminding myself that the sheer logistics of rigging all those hundreds of wires and weights to make the puppets move at all was a feat worth applauding and justifies any use.
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At its root, Tierney's script is a story of love and loss, with the simplicity of its systems being its most beautiful and endearing quality. Initially a classic tale of A loves C, and B loves C, and C loves both, the tale is complicated by the emergence of a bumbling and mistaken manifestation of Death (literally two lengths of PVC piping on wires that resemble a giant compass rose) who accidentally shoots C, and brings both A and B to the verge of suicide. The development of A, B and C through Tierney's narration has the feel and cadence of a children's storybook, in that she begins with the same invocation of the characters' health status (they are of average health) and gives each character their little quirk to endear them to the audience. We learn that A likes to quote Baudelaire in French, and that B can levitate, and that C likes to stand on a swing and pretend she's a pop star. The demure tone of the production can be a tad trying, as the narration takes on a decidedly dispassionate and uncaring tone at times, with Tierney's slow speech and light French accent.
There is a very funny and very unexpected nod to post-modern poetry as we are introduced to E (probably the most autobiographical of the characters for Tierney) a performance artist just slightly past her prime, whom Death loves, and whose endearing quirk is conjuring two slinky towers from the floor as a new way of channeling and reciting the repetitive poetry of Gertrude Stein. It is at once an odd talent to have, as the recording of Stein doing her thing in the background elicits laughs from the audience (let's face it: out of context it's silly), but also a nod to one of the great mathematicians of human relationships, a wink perhaps at Stein's Q.E.D. which is arguably one of the most enduring testaments to the complications of the love triangle. Like Stein, Tierney is pushing the boundaries of the obvious "A loves B and no one else" paradigm, and adds different variables like C or Death or E to create a new equation to which the derived answer complicates the original problem. Tierney's production ends with Death being the only one left standing and this seems fitting as all relationships, in a nutshell, will end with this final equalizer.