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Carved out of a legacy and all grown up, the puppets take Atlanta

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Yates has scheduled the next Puppet Slam for Sept. 29 at Dad's Garage and expects another unpolished outpouring of edgy puppetry. "I try to not give too much notice before slams, because I like things in a raw state," he says. "Two or three weeks out I'll say, 'Hey, there's a slam coming up.' With some of the puppets, you can tell the artists just slapped them together that day."

Yates acknowledges that the slams can be raucous affairs; beer flows freely backstage, while the sexy, gory content tends to be utterly uninhibited. "Chris Brown's puppets are usually so sopping with blood that they can't be used again," says Yates, referring to one of the Center's puppet builders.

By contrast, Haverty doesn't avoid sex or violence in his shows, but also gravitates to larger, literary themes with intimidating complexity. In 2005 he took Gilgamesh, the world's oldest surviving epic poem, and compressed it to a surreal, dizzying tale with puppets as tragic heroes.

With As I Lay Dying, Haverty moves onto a bigger stage.

"I wanted to do something large, and it's got large themes in it," Haverty says while taking a break from doing maintenance on his puppet cast on an August afternoon. He remembered reading the book in high school and being stricken by its poetic, violent language and its grotesque plot points. "Faulkner seemed [the right choice] partly because he would describe his characters as 'wooden' or being like objects. I read six or seven of Faulkner's novels to make sure that As I Lay Dying was the right one, and it was the simplest to do."

Faulkner's tale of madness, infidelity and family infighting includes floods, fires and more than a dozen stream-of-consciousness narrators – that hardly suggests "simple." How do you visually render the five-word chapter "My mother is a fish," which expresses 10-year-old Vardaman's confusion between his recently deceased mother and the fish he caught the same day? Haverty captures the moment with a surreal, woodcut-style image of Vardaman literally suckling a fish.

Adapting As I Lay Dying for puppets might be insanely ambitious, but judging from the opening-night performance, it's also strangely appropriate. Haverty calls the set and general design a cross between a cemetery and a carnival, and one character literally resembles the target of a shooting gallery. Haverty's carvings evoke Southern folk artists such as Howard Finster, just as the period-specific music features sacred harp and gospel songs – all acoustically rendered.

Haverty and his puppeteers (Wade Tilton, Matt Stanton, Amy Rush, Jeffrey Zwartjes and Kristin Jarvis) present a work with a thrilling abundance of creative ideas, not unlike Faulkner's own prose. Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take in, but again, that's also like Faulkner. Overall, it's like the company returns As I Lay Dying to its roots in the untamed South of the 1930s, springing the book from its dusty confinement in a high school American-lit class.

One character even compares time to "a looping string." It's like it was made for puppets, and Faulkner didn't even know it.

In his soft-spoken, almost boyish way, Haverty sounds like an evangelist in the church of puppetry. It's fitting that in As I Lay Dying, in addition to the roles of brothers Jewel and Vardaman, Haverty also manipulates and provides the voice of Whitfield, an adulterous preacher built so his arms point in opposite directions and gently spin like a propeller. At one point during rehearsal, the Whitfield puppet paused in his preaching and said to the musicians, "I think right there, Damon, we could have a stop."

For an instant, it seemed like the Whitfield puppet, a mass of carved, painted blocks, was actually directing the show and giving his "notes" to Damon Young and the flesh-and-blood members of the company. With puppets, it's disconcertingly easy to think of them as being alive.

Maybe the puppets really are calling the shots, and puppeteers such as Haverty and his many colleagues in Atlanta are just the middlemen (and women). At any rate, mature puppet characters are standing up on their wooden feet, flexing their muscles – or at least their strings – and showing their limitless possibilities to offer new perspectives on affairs of us humans. Tired of waiting in the wings, Puppets are taking on grown-up audiences and are ready to entertain them – forevermore.

See also:

Puppet master
Top five shows from Jon Ludwig

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