Hand Shadow Puppetry by Steven Wendt

HERE Presents Phil Soltanoff, Director

By: - Dec 12, 2022

This and That delights.  The production also raises questions: Can a serious effort be delivered with casual aplomb?  Great beauty?  Mystery?  From a messy theater?  

In the hands of Philip Soltanoff  and Steven Wendt, the answer is a resounding yes.

This program begins with ‘technology.’  Images dance to music– baroque, Bach et cetera. Special moments consist of a small blob opening like the mouth of a brass instrument, which of course in its firm, real life only opens musically.  Adding the visual is entrancing. 

Two parallel slim light lines, one moving from the right to left, are accented by a barely visible splash of color to the music's beat.  Lights and music sometimes explode simultaneously.  

In the second part of the evening, human relationships are explored.  Lest we consider them too important or unique in the hand shadow puppetry of which Wendt is a master, a moose, classic hand shadow image, is intermittently interposed.

A man singing is a tour de force of finger manipulation.  A woman with child, who could be Eliza from Uncle Tom’s Cabin cradling a baby, dares to venture out to sea, but then retreats.  Then we have a shadowy Jennifer Lopez pole dancing.  

Wendt admits that this sequence is tough on his fingers and hands.  Walking, with the palm of the hand flat and two dangling fingers moving, is the retreat or base position for his action.

These mini stories are moving and funny.  That we see the artist performing them before our eyes makes them real in a way that no other delivery would.  

Usually the puppeteer is disguised, dressed in black, or hidden behind a proscenium.  Not so for This and That.  He is right in front of us. The director, who is also manipulating notes sits off to the side, is barely visible, yet present.  

When Nia DaCosta used shadow puppets in her film Candyman in order to show the origin of the movement, she showed the strings. Here it is the human who actually creates the shadow, shown  live.  Nothing is inhuman.  

The mystery of why these hand shadow puppets are so moving does not have to be solved to give pleasure. Yet the lingering pleasure left me wondering what the pull was?

Is it the human hands, which you can see in the darkness of the theater?  The artist puts them on the screen as shadows, palms up, so we can see the literal source of our delight.

Then there is the figure of the artist, moving about the stage in darkness, but always in action. The theater  is cold and his arms are always extended up, so he is a bit numb by the end of the performance.  An unusual sacrifice.

The artist is a pianist, and for anyone who plays this instrument, his finger motions suggest play.Yet, when the subject is serious, like a mother holding her infant child, thee is a lightness of being.  

Nothing is hammered home.  It is offered up, and a gift which we gladly receive.  

Don’t miss this special performance at Here through December 18th.