NEW YORK — These days, in the theater, there are puppets everywhere you look: behind a scrim as shadows in “Wicked,” singing about schadenfreude in “Avenue Q,” eating fellow actors in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
And the proliferation of puppets couldn’t make Basil Twist, a longtime avant-garde New York puppeteer, any happier.
“I think it’s great that there are different kinds of puppets,” Twist says at the Vineyard Theatre, where Paula Vogel’s play, “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” featuring puppets of his design, opened this week. “This way, people can pick and choose and see the power of puppetry as a dramatic medium and not just as fun.”
“The Long Christmas Ride Home” is an unusual project for Twist, who develops his work from the ground up. He staged “Symphonie Fantastique,” for example, to Berlioz’s composition in a fish tank using abstract puppets like ribbons and cut-out paper shapes. (When Twist first performed the show, he used a 500-gallon tank at the HERE Performing Arts Center, where he also runs a puppet workshop; last spring, he restaged it at Lincoln Center using a 10,000-gallon tank.) But Vogel, who won the Pulitzer for her play “How I Learned To Drive” in 1998 and wrote this particular piece to include nonhuman actors, sought Twist out.
The new play chronicles a family’s car ride to and from Christmas dinner with bickering parents in the front seat, played by actors, and their children, played by puppets, in the back. When the car skids off the road, the play jumps several years into the future to show the audience how this particular Christmas affects the rest to come. “The puppets are a mixture of American realism and Japanese stylization, but they also had to look like kids,” Twist explains. “Usually, I do a lot more fantastical stuff.”
Twist calls the new puppets, which are operated from their heads with a toggle and wear handmade clothing (and store-bought shoes), “the dramatic center” of the show. “Puppetry has the power to convey a sense of childhood,” Twist says. “It touches people in a different way than having a child on stage. A puppet becomes something that people can project onto.”
Twist grew up around puppets. His grandfather was a bandleader who used puppets of famous bandleaders, like Cab Calloway, in his act, and his mother, who now writes books like “The Soul of Money,” had a children’s puppet company. Basil didn’t ever perform, though. “I just got to go backstage and touch the puppets and see where they lived.”
Though the child puppets in “The Long Christmas Ride Home” are fairly straightforward, there are some particularly Twistian touches, including a parade of kimonos that enters from backstage while the characters are at church. And Twist has been commissioned by the Japan Society for more Japanese-influenced work. “I’m still figuring out what I’m going to do,” he says. “There’s an abstract puppetry folk tradition in Japan of sliding screens that open and close or flip over or get increasingly smaller. It’s something like the work I’ve been doing for a while.”