In the age of electronic entertainment, how delightful to see a roomful of children wrapped in the spell — not of a movie, video game or Web site — but an old-fashioned puppet show. Che’s Lounge in Vineyard Haven played host Sunday, Feb. 15 (the second of three consecutive Sundays scheduled) to a local puppet troupe performing a Brazilian folktale — Toad and the Party in the Sky — to a packed house. Children in the audience, ranging in age from one to ten, were clearly captivated, laughing aloud and even singing along with the characters.
Resurrecting the all but lost art of puppetry are the four Vineyard women who make up the troupe — Plum Hill school director April Thanhauser, Island painter Marsha Winsryg, Aquinnah wampum-jewelry designer Joan Lelacheur, and artist Bella Felipe. The women make their own marionettes, write the scripts, design the sets, and perform puppet shows. Toad and the Party in the Sky is a traditional Brazilian story that Ms. Thanhauser says she first heard when she was in training with a Waldorf master puppeteer, a three-year study that she completed five years ago. She and Ms. Winsryg started the troupe in 2000, and Ms. Lelacheur and Bella (who prefers to be known as such, sans surname) joined in 2006.
“The story epitomizes the Brazilian spirit,” Ms. Thanhauser says, “of always finding a way.” A story, it would seem by their enthusiastic response to the performance at Che’s, that children relate to as they eagerly follow Toad’s adventures and root for his success.
Not surprisingly, Bella, who hails from Brazil, was familiar with the folktale and adapted the script Ms. Thanhauser had written in English to allow the narrator to tell the story in both Portuguese and English. What is particularly engaging about Bella’s narrative is how she dances between the two languages, while also acting as the show’s one woman musical chorus, playing accordion, piano, and guitar. “In those days, Toad and Vulture were by the river playing music. Toad was a good singer,” Bella calls out in a rich, lyrical voice, then, without missing a beat, “Neste tempo, o Sapo e o Urubu estavam na beira do rio tocando musica. O Sapo era um bom cantor.”
The puppeteers (Ms. Thanhauser, Ms. Winsryg, and Ms. Lelacheur) bring to life Toad, his good friend and fine guitarist Vulture, the trombone-toting Pelican, a flock of whistling birds, and a lovely, regal Mother Earth. The puppets, made of silk and wool, have a softly worn look that rather than detracting from the animation of the characters lends itself to the fluidity of their movements and intricacy of expression, as in a moving moment when one character brushes a healing hand over another’s cheek.
In the Waldorf tradition of handmade marionettes, the troupe’s animal characters are made of needle-felted wool with silk garments, while the people are made of silk, stuffed with wool. Typically, putting together a show takes three to four months, Ms. Thanhauser says, including making the puppets and the scenery, as well as writing and rehearsing the script.
To spread the joy of puppetry, the troupe is planning a puppet festival this summer, over the weekend of July 18 and 19. The festival will feature a parade as well as puppet making workshops and performances at Polly Hill in West Tisbury and Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Over the spring, leading up to the festival, they will also be offering marionette workshops for both children and adults — with one goal being to create a life-size Mother Earth puppet for the parade. The third and final performance in the series at Che’s Lounge will be this Sunday morning, Feb. 22, at 11:30 a.m. No charge, but donations are welcome and appreciated.