by Collin McConnell · December 3, 2014
A strange man hunches in a corner of his swamp hovel. He has a lot of toys, and is very eager to share them with you.
Jeff Achtem - shadow puppeteer extraordinaire - takes time to know his audience. Through a comically belabored conversation at the outset, we learn exactly what kind of narrator we have for the evening, but also we see that he takes stock of who his audience really is and how to adjust to make the experience the best for us. Which is perhaps good, because he's going to share an oddly dark tale to a room full of children: a story of a man in a swamp that likes to torture small creatures, who finds himself on a strange misadventure with a bird. Which is fine, because puppets.
The dark(ish) nature of the simple story never became overwhelming enough to make me uncomfortable laughing at the oddities and misfortune of the puppets (though while it certainly never outdoes modern cartoon violence, I did have a moment where my friend and I turned to each other, both wondering in a bit of shock, "did that just happen?" It didn't, but it definitely wouldn't have been out of place if it did). Because it's not really about the story, it's about this character telling the story, and that is wonderful. The joy Achtem's character (and Achtem himself) takes is so obvious, and so infectious, I sometimes found myself watching him manipulating the multitudes of puppets rather than the puppet show itself.
It goes without saying, then, that Achtem is an incredibly skilled puppeteer. Because it is not just that they're puppets, but shadow puppets. And beyond that, they are shadow puppets with all sorts of moving parts. There is an array of characters, and each character has their own moving quirks, all seemingly puppeteered with such ease, as though anyone living in a strange swamp hovel would gain this magical ability to delight children and adults alike. Achtem is moving all around the stage, contorting himself in all sorts of ways to manage all these different characters in what seems like the most natural of movements.
The skill, and the joy, doesn't end there. The puppet show begins with a three-tiered box - top, middle, and bottom, each with a single light (to project the shadows onto a screen) that Achtem switches between with his foot (of course) to change scenes, on occasion in rapid succession. But then, eventually, the show moves beyond the screen, out and about the house, with the audience no longer a passive spectator, but in the middle of the action, with shadow puppets bouncing all over the walls (and many audience members indeed becoming puppeteers themselves). And finally, the puppetry becomes as immersive as possible, with the shadow puppets no longer confined to the walls, but floating freely in space, in three dimensions.
3D shadow puppets. I… don't really know how else to describe it because I really don't understand how I saw what I saw. It was pure theater magic, filling the room with joy and wonder (indeed, any time something flew out at the audience, the children screamed in delight - and so did I). And that magic felt incredibly real, because, in a sense, it was real: there were no fancy theatrical toys being employed to create dazzling special effects - everything was made by hand, everything was manipulated by hand. Indeed by one man. That, to me, is great theater. Never mind that perhaps the show is intended for children, it is a feat incredible and a true joy to behold for absolutely anyone.
(Photo by Andrew Wuttke)