Puppetry and indie pop collide

Published Thu, Jan 23, 2014 08:00 PM
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Submitted by Glenn McDonald — Correspondent

The property at 715 Washington St. in Durham isn’t much to look at from the outside. It’s a derelict auto repair shop, abandoned long ago, with a rickety pull-down garage door flanked by cinder-block walls.

But on the other side of that door is a whole other world.

On a recent rainy night, the old garage – now an artists’ collective space known as the Shadowbox – is filled with wonders. On a large table rests a miniature city block of off-white skyscrapers, carefully detailed with each window individually outlined. Some even have the lights on.

Across the room is another model of the city – a doppleganger metropolis in which each building is pulsing with bright colors and glitter. Around the room are scattered a few dozen puppets and small sculptures, including an alarming selection of hyper-detailed human heads and hands. A unicycle hangs on the wall, along with a wire-frame blimp and what looks like rusting swordfish.

On the far wall, 10-foot-tall images of the miniature phantom city flicker and fade, powered by the dozen or so performers and technicians running around with hand-held cameras and marionette puppets. It’s a down-the-rabbit-hole kind of tableau. In fact, a spooky mannequin near the door wears a lopsided set of rabbit ears.

Oh, and there’s a rock band in the corner.

Music + puppets + film

The surreal scene at Shadowbox is actually the final off-site rehearsal for “Love’s Infrastructure,” an ambitious collaboration between the Durham-based band Bombadil and puppeteer/theater director Torry Bend, from Duke University’s Theater Studies program. Running through Sunday at the PSI Theater in the Durham Arts Council building, “Love’s Infrastructure” is being billed as a blend of concert, puppet show, music video and live film.

The show features live music from Bombadil, which performs onstage alongside six puppeteers managing puppets and props at different tabletop stations. The puppeteers also operate the hand-held cameras that project the images onto the big screen. The incoming video feeds are mixed live as well, by video designer Jon Haas.

The resulting images are dense, dreamlike and oddly melancholy. The carefully choreographed process results in a layered effect – the hand-held camera might be filming a marionette, standing in a scale model office atop one puppet station, with a back-screen video monitor showing a live feed from yet another puppet station.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Bend says with a laugh. Bend’s last puppet theater project, “The Paper Hat Game,” won accolades in its run last year at Manbites Dog theater, and later in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York.

“Love’s Infrastructure” tells the story of an unhappy big city architect and the mysterious Angeline – the toll booth operator he sees every day in that odd, brief exchange exclusive to the commuter life.

The architect becomes enchanted with Angeline, and in particular the collection of found-object sculptures decorating her toll booth. “Love’s Infrastructure” proceeds primarily though images and music, with song lyrics but no spoken dialogue.

“His world is very stark and sort of architectural-model white,” Bend says. “But her world is rich and lush and slightly dark. The story becomes about their paralleled worlds, and a shifting into the world of the puppets and the band.”

The story is based on several songs from the catalog of indie pop band Bombadil – in particular, the group’s latest album “Metrics of Affection,” released last summer, and its lead song titled, yes, “Angeline.”

The performance will also feature new music composed specifically for the show, says James Phillips, Bombadil’s drummer and chief collaborator on the production.

“Torry took three or four songs, and we made the story from that,” Phillips says. “It became a more refined thing as we worked together, through Torry’s storyboarding and scriptwriting.”

‘Silliness and sadness’

Playing live onstage with the puppetry and video elements requires a special kind of multitasking, Phillips says. “It’s almost like filming a movie live.”

All told, the collaboration between Bend’s dreamlike puppetry and Bombadil’s folk pop has been percolating for more than a year, and both collaborators agree it’s been a happy adventure.

“The first time the band rehearsed in the garage space, we rolled up that door and a puppet of me was walking down the hallway on that huge screen,” Phillips says. “It’s weird to see a puppet of yourself, and when it’s the size of a movie screen, it just adds to the surrealism.”

Bend says that, for her part, she was surprised at how deeply she responded to Bombadil’s music.

“There’s something about it that’s completely quirky and a little bit dark,” Bend says. “Which is completely in line with what I’m interested in in my work. There’s a certain amount of ridiculous magic that’s happening, but then also it’s a little bit shady, a little bit shifty. It’s not all happy endings.”

“It’s a mix of silliness and sadness,” says Phillips.

“Yeah,” Bend says. “That’s a really good way of putting it.”


What: “Love’s Infrastructure” featuring Bombadil

When: 8:15 p.m. Friday; 3:15 and 8:15 p.m. Saturday; 3:15 p.m. Sunday

Where: PSI Theatre at Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., Durham

Cost: $24; $15 age 30 & under; $10 Duke students

Info: 919-684-4444 or dukeperformances.duke.edu

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