Best face forward

“Double, double, toil and trouble!”

Hey, aren’t those Shakespeare’s witches? Whoa — isn’t that murderous Macbeth himself? Is that not handsome young Romeo? And Juliet, too? How can all these characters be played by one actor?

And just who is that masked man, anyway?

The answers are yes, yes, yes, yes — and Larry Hunt. For its latest production, the Asheville Puppetry Alliance presents the internationally recognized performer in Quincy Meets Shakespeare, a mesmerizing melange of mime, masks and puppetry for young and old.

Don’t let the “S” word scare you — the old Bard has never looked so hip. His words are the same — but Quincy makes them super-contemporary.

The piece packs enough passion, pride, murder and belly-laughs in 50 minutes to match any full-length play. Like a magician, Hunt creates enchantment through illusion. He’s a crowd unto himself, taking center stage in his plain black outfit and jazz shoes, which at first make him fade into the heavy dark curtains. Within seconds, however, he has populated the stage with numerous other beings created with his masks and puppets. Plenty of humans, sure — but they’re outnumbered by animals and mythical creatures or “things without a shape,” Hunt elaborated recently from his home in Connecticut.

“Masks give shape to the shapeless,” he adds.

As in animated movies, every moment of stage time in Hunt’s production takes months to prepare and portrays layer upon layer of expression. Yet he can pack his whole show into just three trunks.

Years ago, Hunt was the consummate theatrical actor — talented, well-trained and in love with all aspects of being on-stage. But, like so many other artists, “I was looking for my own voice,” he says. “I wanted to create my own theater.”

For most actors, that ambition usually leads to the unemployment line. But Hunt’s passion drove him to study theatrical movement and, eventually, into a life-long love affair — he says “obsession” — with masks.

“The phenomenon of masks,” he explains, “is universal. Humans have been making masks for thousands of years. In some of the Paleolithic cave paintings in France, there are depictions of shamans wearing masks.”

Today, the masks of Africa, Asia and the Northwest American Indian tribes are best-known, but except for traditions that specifically forbid the artistic portrayal of the human form, masks have been part of almost every culture on earth. From their religious roots, masks became the first theatrical devices. In ancient Greek drama, masks contained amplification devices to project actors’ voices across the amphitheaters.

“Traditionally, masks were really the beginning of puppets; they were worn and manipulated as characters within ritual,” says APA co-founder Pamella O’Connor. “We feel that Larry’s show breaks boundaries in puppetry, bringing new avenues of expression to the art.”

The role of masks in ritual may be two-fold: to allow the mask wearer to take on the persona of another, such as a god or nature spirit, and to disguise himself. But Hunt has nothing to hide: “The mask makes the image you want to get across more expressive,” he explains. “Unlike contemporary media such as TV and films, which emphasize the actor’s face, mask performing forces you to use your body as your creative instrument. Masks free you to be extraordinarily expressive.”

The APA’s own story would make a good theatrical presentation, if not another one of those “only-in-Asheville” stories. O’Connor, an experienced theater actress and award-winning puppeteer, embraced the art late in her career. But once she discovered puppetry’s unlimited theatrical possibilities, “It blew me away,” she enthuses. “Puppetry expanded the definition of theater for me. Puppet theater is more demanding on the audience and therefore a richer experience for them. The vocabulary of a puppet is fairly limited — like a mime, in a way, who expresses only the essence of an idea. The puppet might just tilt its head to the left — but the audience has to fill in the missing pieces in what that simple gesture means. That audience involvement is what I love about puppet theater.”

O’Connor came to Asheville from Atlanta with dreams of putting Asheville on the puppetry map. She was sitting in her cabin in Fairview when, she recalls, “There was this knock at the door.” Turns out that fellow Fairview resident Lisa Sturz had heard there was another puppeteer in town and couldn’t wait for an introduction.

“There aren’t that many puppeteers in the whole world!” O’Connor exclaims. “And here you had two women with national reputations individually, and they’re in the same place at the same time, and they both wanted to do the same thing with puppetry — it was kind of amazing!” In due time, the women formed the APA and launched their dream of expanding the art of puppetry in Western North Carolina.

“I’m really interested in Jung and working with archetypal images and the unconscious,” says Sturz, “so puppets are perfect for me. They are like primal spirits.”

For professional puppeteers, making their puppets involves a deep delving into their own psyches, akin to the way Method actors discover their characters — only even more intense.

“Because you do everything,” says Sturz, “puppetry attracts the kind of person who wants to make their own kind of world. Puppetry is the poetry of theater, and that’s one of the reasons we were so in love with Larry Hunt’s work. He is truly an amazing performer — he finds the visual quality in the puppets that brings out the poetry in the language. It’s the color and the tone and the feeling of all those things between the words. His masks and puppets are the lines between the lines.”

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