Actors know all about using their own bodies and voices to conjure a character on stage. But what happens when you stick a second character onto the end of your arm? Robert Smythe, who’s directed many a wary performer through their first experience with puppetry, insists that the process isn’t all that complicated.
“When I give you a puppet, it’s not like I’m handing you an oboe and asking you to make music with it,” he says. “It’s more like I’m handing you a kazoo. The instrument is pretty simple. But like music, you can be listening to somebody who’s got great technique and it can be dead and soulless, and then there are people whose technique may not be flawless but you wouldn't miss that performance for anything because it’s got soul.”
Imbuing a puppet character with soul is central to Robert Askins’ play “Hand To God,” which runs through the end of April at Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC). The show, which earned five Tony nominations in its Broadway incarnation, involves a young boy whose sinister puppet runs amok in a God-fearing Texas town. Whether the dummy is young Jason’s “id” wreaking havoc or he’s actually under the influence of Satanic forces is the central question of the irreverent comedy.
The larger ideas explored by the play were what attracted Smythe, best known in Philly for being the founder and artistic director of Mum Puppettheatre, while working with several theater companies in the city and across the country. Considered one of the foremost puppet artists in the U.S., Smythe says that he’s now “semi-retired” but called the PTC to offer his services as soon as he heard they were staging Askins’ play.
“To my knowledge, ‘Hand To God’ is the first play that I’m aware of where the puppet is actually a vehicle for exploring a different idea,” Smythe says. “This is not using puppets for shock value in the way that ‘Avenue Q’ does, or something like ‘War Horse,’ which is just an excuse to get everybody in the audience to ooh and aah over an incredibly realistic puppet while the storytelling is crap. This play gets away from technique and into the essence of puppetry, which is confronting us with the idea of what it means to be human.”
Almost a month before previews begin on March 31, Smythe was still unsure what form Tyrone, Jason’s demonic alter ego, would take. Thinking about the prospect of a young kid in a small Texas town, though, he and director Matt Pfeiffer were leaning away from the Muppet-like characters that some productions have used and towards something much more simple. Working with actor Aubie Merrylees, Smythe says, “The stuff that I find most fascinating is when I give him a plain old gym sock and seeing what he can do with that. Anybody can bring a puppet to life, quite frankly; what really knocks you back is when someone scares the [heck] out of you with a sock.”