Sonoran Explorin: Puppets in the Old Pueblo

In which I have my socks charmed off by an internationally recognized children’s production.

click to enlarge Puppets of legend: The cast of Red Herring Puppets’ Aesop’s Fables - PHOTO BY EMILY DIECKMAN
Photo by Emily Dieckman
Puppets of legend: The cast of Red Herring Puppets’ Aesop’s Fables

A mouse defies a lion’s expectations when the tiny creature helps free the lion from a trap. A fox decides the grapes he can’t reach were probably sour anyway. A determined tortoise beats a cocky hare in a race. Most of us have Aesop’s Fables so burned into our brains that just hearing their titles immediately recalls the plots and morals of the story as well. I am delighted to have seen a puppet production of Aesop’s Fables last weekend that let me see these classic stories in a new light.

I haven’t seen a puppet show since I was a child, but when I heard about Red Herring Puppets, I was intrigued. Owner and artistic director Lisa Sturz has an MFA in puppetry, for Pete’s sake. I didn’t even know that was a thing. And she’s got more than four decades of experience building, performing and directing puppetry for film, TV, theater, museums and more. Red Herring’s clients include the likes of Walt Disney Imagineering, Jim Henson Productions, Lucas Films and the Ice Capades. I can’t think of a bigger client for a puppetry company than the company behind the Muppet Movies. And they’ve been here in Tucson for about 2.5 years now.

“It’s magical,” Sturz told me. “There’s a reason why young children like it. I’m not sure I completely understand, but I feel like puppets kind of operate in that in-between world. I guess you could call it the world of imagination.”

Red Herring’s Production of Aesop’s Fables won the Union international de la Marionnette, or UNIMA Citation of Excellence, the highest honor in American puppetry, and I can see why. The rhymed production, which features original music by Cathy Riley and debuted in 2005, is just as impressive as it is adorable.

This show is special to Sturz not just because her friend Riley wrote the original score, but also because of the unique design inspiration. When her son was young, one of his 5-year-old friends couldn’t wait to show her a puppet he’d made, out of paper plates and paper towel tubes. Sturz thought it was great, actually, and she used that as the basis of design for the show. I can see what she means, especially in the stork’s long legs and the faces of the lion and the fox characters. The story’s plot weaves together six fables, with the characters from different stories interacting throughout, rather than presenting each story one at a time.

They’re tabletop puppets, operated with hand controls or marionettes, and you can see the two puppeteers (Sturz and troupe member Katie Popiel) wearing all black and operating them. It made me feel more in touch with my imagination when I realized how easy it was to forget the puppeteers were there and become immersed in the story. I think that’s in large part thanks not just to the visual beauty of the puppets, but to the fantastic voice acting. Sturz switches seamlessly between a squeaky little mouse, a pompous-sounding stork and a grasshopper from New York. Popiel is also excellent as characters including the cunning fox and lethargic tortoise.

Red Herring is a small, unassuming place in the Tucson Mall. There are wooden panels set up with posters from some of the company’s past projects, from “Robo Cop 2” to “Muppets From Space.” There are also photos of some of the custom production work the company has done, like a 40-foot dragon for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, operated by more than a dozen puppeteers. Sturz still does custom fabrication, ranging from mascots to theater pieces. Behind the panels, Sturz tells me on the phone, are lots and lots of puppets. She’s got thousands, and storing them is no small feat.

Sturz is a master at pleasing the kid crowd. When one kid calls out an unsolicited suggestion for how a character can solve a conundrum, the puppet answers her, and then answers other kids as they pipe up as well. But Sturz makes it a point in every show to slip in jokes the adults might appreciate too, like when she looks out at the crowd of 4-year-olds and says, “Who here remembers Archimedes’ Law of Replacement?” And there are some nuggets of wisdom that can be appreciated by all ages, like this gem from the Lion and the Mouse fable “Sharing friendship and cheese is the only way to live.”

Artistry, charm and words of wisdom. What more could you ask for on a weekend afternoon?

Red Herring Puppets Is located on the second floor of the Tucson Mall near Macy’s, 4500 N. Oracle Road. You can catch the final weekend of Aesop’s Fables at Red Herring Puppets this weekend. Visit redherringpuppets.com for tickets and more information on shows, summer camps, custom fabrication and more.

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