A spectacular display of puppets from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection is now on view through Oct. 2. Three separate vignettes, including some of the best examples of American avant-garde marionettes and rod puppets, show the versatility of puppets to express character and emotion. The impressive displays are free with museum admission and free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
One case features 13 puppets from a 1929 production of Noël (The Mystery of the Nativity) written by Maurice Bouchor in 1895. Among the puppets are “Mary Holding her Baby Jesus,” “The Angel Gabriel,” whose wings are made of bird feathers, a stable of animals and Chaldean, African and Indian kings. To enliven the performance, McPharlin created two types of puppets: rod puppets, whose rods fit into the stage so that they could be moved from underneath; and shadow puppets on strings and pulleys that projected shadows of an animal procession behind the costumed characters.
Another vignette tells the story of a dramatic 1894 play called The Death of Tintagiles, which was written specifically for marionettes. Marjorie Batchelder produced her own version in 1937, and the seven puppets on view were created to impart the emotion of the characters in this serious story. Batchelder combined rod and hand-puppet controls for the production, and her innovate technique was later adopted by puppeteers such as Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets.
The fluidity of motion is the subject of the third puppet display. Two marionettes—The Queen and Dancer—are experimental papier-mâché figures based on Bronze-Age statues. A puppeteer manipulated the strings from above to make them glide across the stage. As they moved, light hit the angular facets of their limbs to create shadows and reflections to enhance their expressiveness.
The Queen and Dancer were meant to show off movement rather than act out a particular storyline. They were designedby puppeteer Michael Carr and director Gordon Craig, who purposely left the puppets unpainted and without costumes to focus on the dancelike motions and dreamlike mood created by skillful manipulation of the strings
Museum Hours and Admission
9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. General admission (excludes ticketed exhibitions) is free for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county residents and DIA members. For all others, $12.50 for adults, $8 for seniors ages 62+, $6 for ages 6–17. For membership information, call 313-833-7971.
Image: “Mary Holding Jesus” (Rod Puppet), 1929, Paul McPharlin, composition wood, fabric, oil paint. Detroit Institute of Arts