Election Section

Arts: Found Object Puppets Tell Tale of Internment Camps By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Tuesday October 04, 2005

A rice bowl, a pair of chopsticks and a brightly colored cloth, when put together, cause a samurai to materialize, leaping, fencing, then, quickly changing into a junklike boat on cloth waves, the same simple objects manifesting the transoceanic voyage of Japanese to America. 

This is just a moment at the start of a puppet show fable of a difficult chapter in our 20th century history, Lunatique Fantastique’s Executive Order #9066, now at the new Marsh Berkeley in the Gaia Building. 

The Oakland-based Lunatique Fantastique, a kind of Dickensian orphanage for found objects that multitask as all manner of puppets, props and scenery, is the brainchild of Liebe Wetzel, who directed her puppeteer collaborators with Christine Young in what’s just the first of a work-in-progress “War Trilogy,” including pieces on the carving up of the Middle East and Einstein and the development of the bomb.  

Lunatique’s previous shows have usually been more whimsical, but Wetzel’s humor has bite, and pathos. Executive Order #9066 is a simply told story that relies on a dazzling sleight of puppeteers’ hands. 

The puppeteers themselves are attired in Bunraku-like black robes with veiled hoods. They’re visible onstage all the while, and provide the spare soundtrack to the story, with unintelligible chatter and giggling, as well as sound effects performed solely by lips and tongue—and the sounds of the objects they manipulate into form.  

A Japanese tea setting becomes a Japanese American family, inverted pot for mother’s head (spout for eloquent nose) and teacups for her mischievous sons, always cutting up or playing baseball with the Anglo neighbor boy, a white sugarbowl (handles for big adolescent ears), whose mother is a white English-style teapot, upsidedown.  

Things seem cozy in the neighborhood, until, in the first tour-de-force of their artistry, Pearl Harbor is attacked, the whole scene played out with paper, its crumpling the sickening sound of flames, a harbinger for worse nearer the end of the show. 

The two previously friendly housewives read it in their newspapers, teapot spots “pouring” intently over the tragedy that silences their curbside morning chats. Suspicion and shame replace friendship. (Always remarkable how well-handled puppets can bring out the subtlest of emotions, even these momentary collections of odds-and-ends, their “unselfconsciousness,” as playwright Heinrich von Kleist put it almost 200 years ago, enabling them to move and to express things in a way that humans would stumble over themselves, just trying.) 

In another scene, which is part fable and part political cartoon, an upside-down coffee urn becomes a military head; a hat, glasses and a cigarette holder materialize FDR in a wheelchair of kitchenware. The President and the general play poker with pricetags, strings dangling. When FDR loses, he signs Executive Order #9066 with his cigarette holder. It is the command that sent 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps in February 1942. Lunatique, with the help of survivors of that time and the projects which memorialize it, researched and developed this piece for The Marsh. 

The price tags become tags for the auctioning of the detainee’s belongings. Pennies are scattered on the stage. An old, tattered suitcase becomes a bus on rollers with tin can headlights. The family is deposited at the camp, laid out on a field of brown wrapping paper covered in sand, which gets into everything. A new, hard life begins for the family. 

Nonetheless, there’s humor and a little lightheartedness and a lot of baseball and playing in confinement. One son decides to enlist, followed by scenes of combat. The tags are later put into service as dogtags, telegrams, tombstones and Japanese shrines in the sand, and a memorial scroll hanging on the tree (a twig in a tin can) grown on the campgrounds, which finally flowers. 

The dropping of the A-Bomb looks back to the troupe’s enactment of Pearl Harbor, and ahead to Wonder, the story of Einstein and atomic power, the projected third part of the trilogy. It’s enacted in awful simplicity for this current run, which began at The Marsh in San Francisco on the 60th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima. 

As story-telling, as performance and as a chronicle of human endurance while lost in upheaval, Lunatique Fantastique’s Executive Order #9066 is remarkable and unique. As puppeteering, the show is a successful extension of their own style into a more complicated mode and historical material that’s difficult to represent, as many of the 50th and 60th tributes to World War II survivors have demonstrated. 

No wonder these artists-in-residence at The Marsh have been recognized by the Jim Henson Foundation (named after the Muppets’ creator) as bringing a new and versatile style to the craft. 


Lunatique Fantastique’s Executive Order #9066 plays at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, the Gaia Building, through Oct. 21. For more information call 800-838-3006 or see www.themarsh.org.›