'Hand to God' at PTC: A lesson in puppeteering

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(Left to right:) Aubie Merrylees, unnamed sock puppet, and puppetmaster Robert Smythe work on Merrylees' puppet moves, in preparation for "Hand to God" at Philadelphia Theatre Company, March 31-April 30.

OK, which are creepier: clowns or sock puppets?

Actually, I have never suffered from either coulrophobia (clowns) or pupaphobia (guess). But after watching a puppeteering class for the upcoming production of Hand to God at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (March 31-April 30), I realize that, in the hands of a skilled actor, a puppet can … well, it’s scary.

The class took place at the Mask & Wig Club on S. Quince Street. The coach was puppetmaster Robert Smythe, and what a vigorous, dynamic teacher he is. His student was Aubie Merrylees, who in Hand to God by Robert Askins, must play both Jason (a boy) and Tyrone (the puppet he meets, learns to master, and goes on to take over the world … well, I exaggerate). And that takes skill.

Watching Merrylees and Smythe taught me as much about acting as any other hour in my whole life. Smythe was great about the goals of puppetry onstage: to “give the illusion of a separate life … to convince the audience that the puppet is acting on its own, with its own intentions and motives.”

Here, Smythe and Merrylees practice in a mirror. As we watch, the puppet looks around, creasing the “brow” (do puppets have brows?) as its gaze wanders. Merrylees keeps saying he’s a newbie at this, but he has a knack: The puppet breathes in and out, has some pretty great expressions. Smythe says it’s fine to be “puppetlike” as first, but later the puppet will/must take on more life and character:

Later, Aubie practices having the puppet and himself look at different things, and also practices lining up the puppet’s eyelines for realistic, smooth expressions. Smythe loves how the puppet sees him and takes in a breath – “Yes!” (The puppet rather creepily locks on to yours truly for a moment. Merrylees is great.)

 


Hand to God. March 31-April 30 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $13-$30. Information: 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.