Pulling strings at Marigny’s Giant Puppet Festival

Strings and shadows take center stage in Marigny over the next two weekends as the Mudlark Public Theatre presents the second annual Giant Puppet Festival at the Marigny Opera House and its own theater on Port Street.

“The Marigny Opera House’s size allows puppets and puppet works to literally be giant in scale, but what actually makes the festival giant is the incredible diversity of the puppet forms exhibited,” said Pandora Gastelum, Mudlark Theatre’s proprietor and founder of the Mudlark Puppeteers.

Gastelum studied puppetry in the Czech Republic and throughout Southeast Asia, as well as at New York University, and the festival reflects a blend of Western and Eastern traditions.

“In true American fashion, I have made my own Frankenstein’s monster out of everything that I’ve learned,” she said. “I feel really lucky to have studied a broad spectrum of traditions, but I never feel limited to the practice of one.”

A range of styles, including shadow-and-rod puppets, interactive models and marionettes, will be featured at the festival. Live scores will accompany the performances on sets that are as diverse as the shows, utilizing everything from shadows and projections to scaffolding and a proscenium stage.

The two venues will enable audiences of all ages to enjoy the performances.

“The work that goes on at the Marigny Opera House is open to all members of the community,” including children, Gastelum said.

The later shows at Mudlark are adult-only performances because they deal with adult themes and humor.

“The imagery can be more challenging, more psychedelic or potentially scary,” Gastelum said. “They are stories about love and death, passion, and also alternative dimensions.”

The festival’s lineup includes both local and national puppeteers. National acts include Complicated Horse Emergency Research from Oakland, Calif.; Asheville, N.C.,’s Toybox Theatre and Cripps Puppets; and Sarah Frechette’s Puppetkabob, whose work has been awarded an UNIMA, the Oscar equivalent in the puppet world.

Local puppeteers include Lax Laze Theatre, Scary Toesies, Harry Mayronne, the Mudlark Puppeteers, Skookum Heehee Tumtum and Calliope Puppets.

A special screening of Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s new animated feature “The Mystery in Old Bathbath” will close the festival at 9 p.m. May 5 at the Marigny Opera House.

Gastelum hopes that by attending the festival, “people might become inspired to think about narrative differently, to think about storytelling in broader ways.”

Although puppetry is an ancient art form, popular and well-respected throughout the world, adults in the United States might dismiss it as children’s theater, which Gastelum attributes to “our fixation on the real.” But this is precisely what she loves most about the art of puppetry.

“With a puppet you know it isn’t real, and therefore you can surrender to the experience of it.”

Of late, Gastelum said she has seen a puppetry renaissance in the United States in response to the proliferation of screens and technology. “Artists are trying to keep the tradition of object-based storytelling alive,” she said. “But it’s not just puppetry; it’s the idea of the human presence inside of the art that people are really hungry for — the sense of craftsmanship of a human hand.”

As part of the festival, Sarah Frechette will hold two puppet-making workshops using paper and recycled materials for children 4 and older from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Marigny Opera House.

The workshops echo the values of the festival.

“Everything you’ll see on display is handcrafted. You can really see the presence of the individual artists behind the work and the incredible range of imagination and ingenuity,” Gastelum said.