Hudson to China: Toy Theater in a Concrete Temple
It’s a hot Thursday afternoon. West of Union Square, just off the L train, Concrete Temple Theatre is engaged in a focused rehearsal for their upcoming production, an excerpt of the new play Hudson to China. The modest apartment of theater creator and co-artistic director Renee Philippi is literally overtaken by the creation in question; in a room no bigger than 10 feet by 12 feet, the company has built a cherry red, wooden box-theater, complete with traps, flies, and secret doors. From a first glance it appears charmingly primitive, harking back to earlier theatrical traditions like shadowboxes, footlights, puppets, and traveling trunk shows.
The theater, a creation of Concrete Temple’s personal master builder Carlo Adinolfi, consumes almost half of Philippi’s living space. The production tea—Philippi, stage manager Casey McClain, and myself, the company dramaturge—is forced to sit with backs against Philippi’s Murphy bed. Spare seats in the room, which are dwarfed by organized towers of toolboxes, hot glue, foam board, and body parts (one can see a dismembered Panda body poking from out of a box), are rare. Piles of materials and building supplies are everywhere, as are toys. There are at least 100 puppets in the show, and four live performers—Zdenko Slobodnik, Diana Chang, Adinolfi, and Bob Goldberg, who plays live accordion in addition to other instruments. They warm up at our feet, chanting tuneful choruses of Henry Hudson sea shanties. The space is tight, but the mood, light and airy, feels like that of a children’s summer camp.
But when the performers climb into the box, the conversation takes a turn to one that might well be heard in a production meeting for Miss Saigon:
“Uh, so how are we going to lift the helicopter?”
“I thought you were signaling it.”
“No, no, no, you lift the helicopter; I’m bringing in the Statue of Liberty.”
This is standard talk for the makers of Hudson to China, which was conceived, built, and written by Philippi and Adinolfi. Ambitious production is the norm for Concrete Temple, a creative ensemble with a strong focus on ritual theatre, multi-disciplinary storytelling, and the collective experience. Helmed by Philippi and Adinolfi, the company has now built roughly eight productions, which they tour and perform around the world, most recently India. This new work will be presented locally at the 9th Annual International Toy Theatre Festival, produced by Great Small Works at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse May 30 - June 13, with Concrete Temple’s showing June 9 and 10.
The International Toy Theater Festival & Temporary Toy Theater Museum, produced by fellow toy theater practitioners Great Small Works, has featured the work of over one hundred artists, mixing novices with toy theater legends. This combination of expert artisans, enthusiastic novices, and general puppetry nerds has lead to a full scale toy theater revival. In the festival’s 17 years of existence, the productions have moved from Theater for the New City to contemporary theater powerhouse St. Ann’s. This year’s festival promises work from over 50 companies from all over the world, as well as symposiums, a family program, a cabaret night, and a toy theater museum. Concrete Temple is one of the few local theaters appearing.
Hudson to China examines the often tumultuous relationship between China and the United States through three characters. The statue of Henry Hudson (played by Adinolfi) believes he has found a route to the mythical Orient. While Hudson works, a young New Yorker, Henry, dreams of success by conquering what he fears, a growing Chinese economy, and a Hudson-obsessed Chinese immigrant, Hua, longs for home. The two modern parties meet against depictions of countless handshakes and historical imagery; the play’s visual language is a constant blending of past and present.
The production sequences and the construction of the play are by far the most complicated elements of the script; the theater box is designed so that it tightly houses three actor/puppeteers. This 15-minute showcase has taken roughly 375 hours to build. With over a hundred puppets in the show, each performer is responsible for about 33 pieces. With Adinolfi’s watercolor treatment of each of the show’s “toys,” the effect is something of a living children’s picture book. His paintings are mounted onto foam board, made mobile by a long stick which the puppeteers control from below the stage. As they crouch there, all action goes on above them: pandas climb a mountain; a Bronx family goes to visit the Hudson statue at the mouth of the river.
Philippi and Adinolfi conceived of the project after they were assigned a commission by the Hudson Opera House to create a play for the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s journey down the Hudson River. Doing a play that was strictly historical did not interest the artists. What impressed Philippi more was Hudson’s lifelong fixation with finding a route to China.
“We had decided about a year ago that we wanted to do a piece inspired by William Kentridge’s Black Box/Chambre Noire,” says Philippi. “The subject matter of Hudson to China seemed to lend itself to a big puppet box presentation. It occurred to us that the most fascinating aspect of Henry Hudson and his life was his compulsion to find a trade route to China, which of course made us think of modern day trade with China and consumerism.”
Such a theatrical, expansive story is really just the kind that merits exploration by way of toy theater. Because toy theater explores grand action on a smaller scale, much can be done on these tiny stages. Hudson to China, for example, features four pandas, two kicking Statues of Liberty, a Henry Hudson statue that comes to life, the building of a suspension bridge, a tank, a helicopter, Richard Nixon, and Chairman Mao—feats that would be nearly impossible (or at least, extremely difficult) in conventional theater. “Building a toy theater is like having a huge budget on a small scale,” says Adinolfi. “The temptation is to take on huge issues on a small scale, simply because you can.”
Hudson to China shares the stage with two other presentations: Who’s Hungry-West Hollywood, created by Dan Froot and Dan Hurlin, described as “a triptych of short toy theater plays based on the life stories of three homeless residents of West Hollywood, California,” and Growing Up Linda: Fudgie’s Death, which uses pop-up books to explore the demise of an heiress. Kamp, the festival’s headliner by Hotel Modern, one of Holland’s foremost object theaters, is the most complex play in the festival. The play depicts thousands of three-inch tall puppets reenacting the atrocity of Auschwitz. Actors circle the camp like silent war correspondents, and the audience must watch while horrendous crimes are committed.
There’s also fare like The Little Blue Moon Theater, whose piece Mutiny on the Bounty is an exploration of tropical island life. For the more literary, Open Eye Theater presents Love, Go Figure, an adaptation of five cantos from an epic Italian love poem Amore! Que Fregatura! by Maladetto Poetaccio (1269-1299). And the toy theater festival would not be complete without an appearance by puppet-celebs Bread and Puppet Theater, renowned for oversized puppets and gigantic creations. Their play, Kennedy Assassination Recalled in the Year of the Empire 2010 with Reference to James Douglass’ “JFK and the Unspeakable,” might take the award for this year’s most politically charged (and longest) title.
For productions constructed of toys, these are awfully heady topics. What is it about toy theater that breeds scripts with intense thematic treatment? “You can comment on these things without being didactic,” says Philippi. “It is hard to do a political play without it being agitprop or guerrilla or hitting the audience over the head. It is hard often for these themes to have nuance in traditional theater. They are just too overarching, and when one tries to soften and use metaphor, what one is trying to communicate often doesn’t come through.”
Adinolfi also weights in: “I think that because the medium is very visual and yet the puppets pretty limited in their actions, symbols have a lot more impact in toy theater, and the more universal the symbol the easier it is for the audience to ‘get it.’ World politics and news media is saturated with symbols and so becomes easy subject matter. The great thing with toy theater is that you can easily juxtapose those symbols and have a lot of fun with the meaning that the audience reads into them.”
We’ve been sitting in Philippi’s living room now for about three hours, the focus being a three-minute segment of the piece. Puppeteers Slobodnik and Chang have a somewhat impossible task ahead of them: they must express a range of emotions using their stick puppets that, through a trigger device, can make only a single motion. As they work out how to transition from elation to fear, the two have a psychical concern as well: they keep getting their arms crossed.
The tone in the room remains playful. Adinolfi solves the small crisis by rising to his feet. As he interacts with tiny Lady Liberties—his arm rapidly dictating the gesture he wants the fearful puppet arms to emulate—a panda crashes to the floor.
“Panda rampage!” shouts Slobodnik.
“It’s just like Hamlet,” quips Philippi.
The wooden panda climbs back up onstage and Slobodnik makes it moonwalk. The room erupts with giggles. It is, after all, toy theater.