This week’s puppetry outing introduced me to the primitive theatrical form of Cantastoria, which probably merits some explanation since I had never heard of it before happening upon the show on the Henson Foundation website (which, incidentally, is a great resource for finding out about NYC-based puppet theater). Briefly, Cantastoria involves a spoken or sung narration accompanied by painted, drawn, or otherwise-rendered still imagery: you can think of it as a sort of medieval powerpoint presentation. Back in the day, these tended to be familiar religious stories, cautionary tales of immorality, &c. But like much have theater, Cantastoria has grown up quite a bit in the millennium subsequent to its founding.
Speaking of grown-up, the show I caught was called Phobia and Fetish and was put on by the appropriately titled group Cranks and Banners down at the Here arts center in SoHo. This turned out to be a pretty ideal introduction to Cantastoria, since the show literally kicked off with an introduction to Cantastoria, described in song as the lead artist of the group mapped out the history and spread of the art form on her dress, painted in exquisite detail with a map of the Middle/Far East (cradle of Cantastoria, it turns out) and complete with fold-down sections depicting historical Cantastorians and their circumstances. The way they told it, theatrical styles as diverse as shadow puppets, marionettes, bunraku, and hand puppets can trace their history back to these paintings and accompanying stories.
The subsequent parts of the show each had a unique style, making for a pretty great showcase of the flexibility of Cantastoria. One of the more striking involved a box with cranks on either end and a continuous, maybe 30 meter long piece of paper stretched between them depicting the narative arc of an Inuit who got into a feud with a neighbor over a certain yellow patch of snow. Much the way that the physical presence of a puppet on a stage creates a very different reaction in the audience than, say, a digital rendering of the same figure would, the physical process of cranking the banner across the box in time with the story was much more engaging than just seeing a video, despite accomplishing something similar. It was also clear just how delicate the paper banner for the story was, with the cranking actors taking great pains to keep it from getting caught in the crank mechanisms.
Another favorite section involved a pair of clotheslines strung across the stage, with the narrator singing her sorry tale of injustice at the hands of love and Uncle Sam while periodically attaching paintings to the lines with clothespins, so only once the song was over could the entire sequence be observed. As expected, a couple of the tales also stuck with the more historical method of displaying paintings one-at-a-time to illustrate the stories. These were cool, but a bit less visually striking than the two I mentioned above; I think the more modern takes on the style probably just appeal a little more in modern times. Still, I recommend checking out Cantastoria if you get the chance; I’d love to catch some more of it down the road and see what other variations the dramatists and -turgs can think up.
Also: yes, I spent pretty much the whole night trying not to make the pun, “Cantastoria? I barely know her!”