Cashore Marionettes coming to Pleasanton’s Firehouse
By Lou Fancher
Silicon Valley-generated software and Hollywood blockbuster animation have nothing on marionettes, a form of virtual reality dating as far back as 2,000 B.C.
Symbolic, moving visuals have substituted for the real things ever since troupes of marionettes delivered messages between Myanmar rulers and their people and later, Egyptians described mythology or acted out classic literature with miniature replicas of humans and animals.
Arriving for two shows Friday and Saturday at the Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton, the Cashore Marionettes will bring “Life in Motion” to the intimate venue.
Master puppeteer Joseph Cashore’s handcrafted string- and pulley-controlled puppets are breathtaking examples of how human ingenuity can transform wood, glue, paper, strings and small lead weights into a moves-like-reality galloping horse, homeless man, mother and child, violinist, guitar rock star and more.
Transcending sheer physics to become storytelling, a performance by Cashore and his 20-inch-tall (on average) cohorts is sophisticated and touches on life’s universal themes colored with humor, pathos, love, fear, longing and joy.
“I’ve been trying to book them at our venue for years because this kind of intimate show works so well in our theater,” says Rob Vogt, the city of Pleasanton’s theater supervisor. “And in this digital day and age, seeing something created by hand, performed live, is special.”
Especially when the creator’s hand belongs to Cashore. From the crude tin can and clothespin marionette he made long ago at age 11, Cashore went on to refine his craft.
In the late 1980s, a marionette he made to play composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” was groundbreaking. The “Maestro Janos Zelinka” had mechanisms created by Cashore that not only moved their limbs, but did it with uncanny realism. The refined, many-strings-and-pulleys design led him to develop a cast of characters and a traveling production.
Cashore has been performing his episodic shows nationally and internationally since 1990. His many awards include a Pew Charitable Trusts’ Fellowship for Performance Art; a Henson Foundation Grant founded by Muppets creator Jim Henson to support puppetry for adult audiences; and an UNIMA Citation of Excellence, widely recognized as the highest honor awarded to American puppeteers.
Vogt says it’s hard to explain to other people his boyhood fascination with puppets but thinks it has something to do with blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
“You start to believe these inanimate objects are alive. The intriguing thing is how cocking a head or dropping an arm can express emotion.”
The show’s brief vignettes have no dialogue and are accompanied by music, mostly classical composers including Beethoven, Vivaldi, Strauss and Copland. It sounds quaint, and it is, but it’s also social commentary and not out of touch with contemporary issues: homelessness, family joy and sorrow, aging and death, the splendor of music across genres, the wonder of birth, a horse intent on its meal.
Cashore claims in interviews to have been a shy child. During the show, he wears all black against a black backdrop — “hidden” but just visible enough for audience members interested in watching the puppeteer behind the puppets.
The Bay Area has a long-standing fascination with puppetry and marionettes; from large, active organizations that include the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild to two-man operations like Fratello Marionettes in San Ramon.
International and Broadway traveling shows like “War Horse, a play based on a book and adapted to the stage that featured life-size horse puppets indicate that adults make up a large part of the audience. And several Bay Area theater companies keep puppet sculptors, video-makers and animators, art therapists, mechanical engineers, fine artists and hobbyists busy.
The Firehouse is offering two shows: evening and matinee. Cashore’s clever engineering results in marionettes that are not “toys” and the narratives are rich with implications and fable-like lessons, meaning adults will draw applications beyond those of a child. But the show is, on every level, perfect for families.
Who can deny the marvelous pleasure of watching a horse that’s 18-inches tall flick it’s tail and cantor across the stage — having forgotten in a blink that it isn’t real? And what parent or child holds in their long-term memory the time when they both stared at their separate, glowing mobile devices? Instead, cherished memories are most often the times when we set aside electronics and other diversions and indulge in real virtual reality.