Friday, March 9, 2012

Pull My Puppet Strings and I'll Dance

Yep, that was me standing in the center of the Landmark stage tonight.

But I worked up to it gradually, beginning with music.

Certain bands play so infrequently out that when they do, I want to be there. Now Sleepyhead is one of my favorites of those.

They were doing an early show at the Camel tonight with Emily Peal. Except that when I arrived, it turned out that Emily had pneumonia.

She has my sincere sympathy for that, knowing, as I do, how that can unexpectedly scratch the record of your life mid-note.

But all was not lost because the show was going on with just Now Sleepyhead.

To pass the time, I bellied up to the bar and ordered nachos and chatted with the bartender whom I'd just seen at Balliceaux the other night for storytelling.

Just as my food arrived, a guy sat down next to me at the bar, knocking into me as he did so.

"Do you do a ton of drugs? How do you feel about drug confessions?" he immediately asked the bartender, who demurred.

Turning to me, he pointed to my nachos. "I'm a hippie. Can I have half of those?"

No, I told him, so he turned and ordered a margarita with "lots of salt and even more extra booze."

When the bartender handed it to him, he asked him, "What's your definition of a hippie? I say it's someone who has money but uses it for good."

The bartender said that that was not his definition of a hippie.

He turned back to me. "You're pretty. Can I buy you a drink?"

Luckily his attention span was short and he abruptly left (after asking the bartender if he had any peyote), leaving those of us who'd dealt with him to shake our heads.

"God speed," a guy near me said.

Just before Now Sleepyhead began playing, the owner asked him to step outside to talk and he wasn't allowed back in.

God speed indeed.

Once the band started playing, all was right with the world because the audience was made up of long-time fans of theirs, many grateful for an early show on a Thursday night.

The combination of keyboards, multiple guitars, French horn and xylophone makes for both an ambient and dreamgaze sound enhanced by multiple vocalists.

Warning that it was a soft song, they played "Use Your Bicycle as an Antenna" and their song for the ages, "Who the Fuck?"

As always, they traded instruments throughout the set and thanked the crowd repeatedly for coming when really we should have bee thanking them.

For my second act, my beekeeping friend had invited me to join a small backstage tour of "The Lion King" given by her friend, Bruce, whom I'd met a Balliceaux Monday evening.

No, I haven't seen the production (although I did meet a hyena at Secco), but how could I turn down an invitation to be at the Landmark stage door at 10:15?

Let's just say I've never been to a stage door before.

Like the eager beaver I am, I was there ten minutes early chatting up another invitee, telling him that no, I hadn't seen the show, but I had met a hyena.

Lo and behold, a woman walks by, looks at me and does a double take.

"I met you at Secco!" said the hyena's wife, assuring me that they'd used my suggestions about what to do in Richmond while they'd been here.

This town is even small when it comes to out-of-towners.

Before we knew it, we were being led through the stage door to the bowels of the Landmark Theater.

Once there, we saw the scads of costumes and puppets that fill twenty semi-trailers when the show moves from city to city (New Orleans is next).

We saw a wall of gazelle heads, all made of carbon fiber and weighing next to nothing.

Moving toward one of the make-up areas, a giraffe looked at our little group and noted, "Wow! You guys must be special. You got Bruce!"

I'd already been feeling like a pretty big deal just to be on this tour; knowing that Bruce never gave them just added another level of thrilling.

And then to get to walk out on to the Landmark stage, where I'd seen the likes of Prince, R.E.M., Paul Simon and Janet Jackson perform, well, it's a good thing there was a lot of head room.

But, as we learned from our guide, there really wasn't. The Landmark has been the most problematic of all the venues the production has used.

Its small doorways make it difficult to get tall giraffes and fat warthogs through inadequate openings.

Just as I was coming down from the high of looking in the orchestra pit from the stage, we walked into the room where Bruce and two others work their magic on the puppets.

A crew member inside stopped cold. "You guys are very lucky! You're the first touring group to come back to the puppet room!"

There we saw the Scar headdress and the separate mechanics and cables that make it move.

He passed just the headpiece around, warning us, "Be very careful with it. It's worth more than a baby."

We saw an entire cabinet of animal heads for the understudies, necessary because each is made exactly to the actor's head size.

I admired the Hyena Rack (labeled as such), knowing that I'd met a hyena.

Bruce explained about how "The Lion King" was conceived of as a double event, meaning the audience sees both the puppet's movement and the actor's simultaneously.

Looking at the warthog's costume, which weighed 40 pounds and had a separate fabric puppet for its tongue, we marveled at the skill of the actor in it.

The Timon puppet was attached to the actor's feet with rods, to his solar plexus with a chest mount and his hands controlled the arms and mouth.

Big budget, meet Walt Disney Industries.

By the time we'd scoured the backstage area, I was in awe of a production I've never seen and likely won't.

But not because I wasn't bowled over by the creativity, ingenuity and sheer scope of the production.

No, it was more of a budget constraint than anything.

In any case, I got to stand on the stage of the Landmark and take a bow in my Berlin tights.

I like to think that had there been an audience, the Tights Queen might have even gotten some applause.

My only challenge then would have been to get my head out those inadequate doors.

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