Sorcerers with strings

Oct 28, 1998 at 12:00 am

It's just plain magical ... there's no other way to describe it. Remember when you were a kid and you heard the story of Cinderella? You became the poor girl -- or the wicked stepmother or the love-lost prince. No matter. It was impossible to walk away from the tale without taking part of it with you.

Well, the magic is happening all over again. Right across the street from the recent J.L. Hudson's implosion cloud, another kind of cloud -- this one of bubbles -- accompanies Cinderella's splendid fairy godmother's descent onto Detroit's newest stage, that of the Detroit Puppet Theater. With her voluminous, blue velvet and gold-trimmed gown, and the regal way in which she carries herself, the godmother is part of a "marionette ballet" that's played to classical music. And it's just plain magical.

A troupe called PuppetART is behind the scenes, turning bedraggled Cinderella into a beautiful maiden in a lace dress, bringing out the king, with his wig of many rolls of white hair and his beautifully bowed slippers. The PuppetART people are invisibly pulling the strings of both the marionettes and the hearts of their spectators.

This spring, in a storefront strip that included a closed-up bar at one end and the Galleria Biegas at the other, three professional puppeteers, recent settlers from Russia, got to work on their lifelong dream of having a permanent place to call home. They'd been storing their wares in the Auburn Hills basement of artistic director Igor Gozman and his wife, production manager Irena Baronovskaya. Meantime, they had been giving puppet shows at libraries, colleges, community centers, schools, synagogues, festivals and art fairs around the metro area -- and the country -- since 1994.

Along with scriptwriter Lyudmila Mikheyenko, these university graduates in the theater arts were weary of hauling things around. They wanted to put down roots in Motown. "We came to America to complete our mission as human beings," Igor says seriously, with a smile.

"We all have a special feeling for cities. Detroit has the opera, musicals, plays ... it had to have a puppet theater. All major cities throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union have puppet theaters of their own. A handful of American cities have them, too. So should we."

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers gave its time and materials to put the 80-seat playhouse together. The theater also received help from the Benard L. Maas Foundation, NBD, the City Arts foundation and others. And things haven't been the same in the heart of Detroit since.

Every troupe member pitches in wherever needed. Natalia Khousid, a professor of puppetry and animation on loan for three years from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography, Grosse Pointe Woods' Diane Spratt and Detroiter Michael Fitzgerald are PuppetART's other members. They all make the puppets and scenery by hand, out of wood, papier-mâché, fabric, plastic, clay, carved foam and rubber. This includes 2-foot-high rod puppets, finger puppets that can dance in unison across a tabletop stage in their tutus and ballet slippers, hand puppets and marionettes. To use their 10-foot-tall marionettes, the puppeteers balance on stilts. There's a diminutive harpsichord, a "stained-glass" window, figures sporting freckles and buck teeth.

PuppetART has a repertoire of four plays and is creating two new ones -- "The Crane Maiden," a Japanese story that will feature different types of puppets, and "Kolobok," a Russian version of "The Gingerbread Man" that will be introduced next year.

According to Gina Granger, assistant curator of the department of education at the DIA, where PuppetART has performed, the Russian Byzantine aesthetic for richly decorated surfaces is evident throughout PuppetART's shows. "They are so wonderful about their work. The sets, the puppets and their costumes are very, very rich," says Granger.

Puppeteers have been around Detroit for a long time. The Detroit Puppeteers Guild, for instance, was founded in 1946. So PuppetART is working on the staging of a "History of Puppeteering in the Detroit Area" event. The theater opens its doors to guest puppeteers, offers classes in puppetry to young and old, and plans to add to its modest historical collection for theater-goers' enjoyment.

"After each performance," says Igor, "we tell the audience about the history and techniques of puppeteering." He holds a simple, inch-thick cardboard ring with sticks and a piece of cloth attached to strings as he talks. I know his hand is moving this skeletal puppet, but I don't see it. There's that magic again.