A Poor Puppet's Hour On Stage

“Make sure that you don’t tip back too far—your head will roll off,” Emily J. Carmichael ’04 says calmly during a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which opens tonight in the Kronauer Space. Carmichael, who co-directs the show with Moss B. Bittner ’02-’03, is very serious as she discusses the movements of her actor—a puppet constructed from cardboard, cloth, air-dry clay, human hair and, she adds, “mostly duct tape.”

Puppet Macbeth is the reluctant brain-child of Bittner, who rocked the Harvard opera scene in the fall of 1996, when he put together a muppet-puppet version of The Magic Flute replete with singers, an orchestra and Sesame Street-style puppets. After the opera’s run, Bittner received numerous requests to design puppets and masks which kept him busy for the next semester. He later left the world of puppeteering, never intending to return—until a cunning friend planted the seed for a new show last spring. Admitting that he’d always wanted to do Shakespeare, Bittner began to ponder which of the Bard’s plays would be fit for the puppet stage.

Over the summer the answer came—Macbeth.

Bittner discussed the selection with other friends, but it was not until last summer, when he asked Carmichael to join him in the endeavor, that the idea became a reality. Together the two are co-directing, co-designing and co-producing the show. Though both enjoy the process, each expresses reservations about doing it all together.

“It nearly killed us a couple of times,” Bittner says.

Macbeth turned out to be the perfect Shakespeare play to do with a non-human cast because it is obsessed with the supernatural, murders and the appearance of ghosts and apparitions. “The play’s doubts about what is true and what is falsehood—but especially falsehood that one creates to gratify one’s own desires—resonate with the simulacric quality of puppets,” Bittner says. The puppets themselves allow the puppeteers more freedom to gesticulate and convey emotion through movement than a traditional cast could.

The production continues to emphasize the contrast between the real and the unreal by steering clear of a traditional conceptualization of the themes of the play. Rather than the courtly appearance normally associated with Shakepearean drama—“played in tights and capes and those ridiculous pumpkin pants,” as Bittner describes them—the production aims for a sparse vision of Scotland that contrasts the real world of Macbeth with the supernatural one. While other productions of the play focus on the system of feudalism in Scotland, this one takes a different approach. “Our idea is that Scotland is very poor—there are no bards or balls or tapestries,” Carmichael says, “just a lot of regicide and rebellion and wearing your mail shirt to sleep. In contrast, the witches are these sort of gaudy and fabulous women—with a really frightening edge.” The witches can move between the real and supernatural worlds and so represent something that Macbeth is missing in his world. “I love the witches. The actors have given them such distinct characters and voices. It’s like Mary Poppins, a truck-stop waitress and an anime cheerleader,” she says.

The physical staging of the play also aids in making the audience think about the illusion of reality in the play. The voice actors sit to the side of the stage where the puppets appear, speaking the parts as the puppets are manipulated. “The character voices will come from a different part of the theater emphasizes their unrealness, and makes what seems real about them all the more compelling” explains Bittner. A lighting director will create the mood while the puppets gesticulate to the words of the actors, and musical interludes—in hip-hop, techno and jazz styles—create an added layer of intensity and distance from Shakespearean tradition.

With 26 hand puppets, six puppeteers, eight voice actors and some funky techno music, this production promises to be anything but a tights-wearing, overacting, stuffy, Laurence Olivier-style production. But this show isn’t just “all is but toys,” as Macbeth says during the play. Carmichael and Bittner say they are making a point.

“To cast toys in human roles makes a statement,” Carmichael wrote in the original proposal for the production: “Specifically, that humans are toys, that humans are made from stuff no fancier than clay or papier-mache, but because they are animate, because they are imbued with a life force, they therefore wield agency, they therefore propel themselves, they therefore are capable of great acts of cruelty and ambition as well as great acts of bravery and love.”

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