Michael Haverty practices his art through his hands. A tug here, a tilt there, and he can bring a little soul to a lifeless marionette.
His hands were his most important puppet back in January at Tales of Edgar Allen Poe at the Center for Puppetry Arts. Bobby Box's adaptation was book-ended with a dramatization of Poe's most famous poem, "The Raven." But instead of using a raven puppet, Haverty donned a pair of gloves festooned with oily-looking black feathers. He held his hands together and flapped his fingers to make the sinister "raven" glide through the performing space.
After the show's climax, cross-cutting between the violent endings of three Poe stories, Haverty was able to quoth the raven once more. Actor John Ammerman, playing the narrator, concluded the show with the lines: "My soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted – nevermore!"
Meanwhile, Haverty forsook his gloves and dipped his now-bare hands in stage blood. Repeating the motions, he represented the bird not with black feathers but with crimson, dripping fingers. Poe's raven was made of blood.
The impact of a simple red raven speaks volumes about the art of puppetry in Atlanta. The device represents Haverty's particular talents as a performer and puppeteer, exemplifies the Center for Puppetry Arts' boundless creativity, and demonstrates the possibilities of puppetry beyond fairy tales and educational shows. Tales of Edgar Allen Poe was aimed at adult and teenage audiences, and Haverty took glee in the reaction of the high-schoolers. "I don't think they'd ever seen anything that gory," says the 27-year-old puppeteer with a boyish smile beneath the bushy, dark mustache – he calls it "half handlebar, half walrus" – he cultivated for a show.
Atlanta has become a mecca for American puppetry, just as puppeteers here and elsewhere are proving the form's power to explore mature themes. To look at adult-oriented puppetry on Broadway, TV and movies, you might think it amounts to sex and/or violence with characters that resemble children's toys. But there's more to it than that.
The Tony Award-winning 2003 musical Avenue Q, coming to Atlanta in March, offers grown-ups "Sesame Street"-style life lessons in adult numbers such as "The Internet Is for Porn." TV shows such as "Crank Yankers" and "Greg the Bunny" delivered confrontational comedy through seemingly cuddly characters. The 2004 film Team America: World Police used marionettes to lampoon the War on Terror and celebrity protests. Increasingly, puppets are engaging in the kind of behaviors you'd never see them do in front of the kids.
Jon Ludwig, the Center for Puppetry Arts' associate artistic director and one of its leading lights, likes to quote "Miss Pussycat," a touring puppeteer who performs in bars. "Her theory of puppets is, 'Puppets are best for kissing, fighting and playing guitar,'" Ludwig says. "But they're also great at playing Hamlet. And the Devil. God. Redemption. Inferno. You have to ask yourself, 'What's the meaning of being an adult when you do adult-level puppetry?'"
Offering more than simply raunchy content in an ironically innocent setting, mature puppetry has claimed the spotlight in Atlanta. The 29-year-old Center for Puppetry Arts, already the nation's largest organization devoted to the craft, has received an unprecedented gift that will raise its national standing and may help boost its programming of mature shows.
As another signal of this surge in interest, Haverty has christened Haverty Marionettes, which specializes in adult-oriented puppet shows – Pinocchio, the Velveteen Rabbit and their ilk are strictly prohibited. Haverty launched the company last week with a phantasmagoric adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a classic novel that would be impossible to put on stage with live actors.
Haverty could qualify as prime example and unofficial spokesman for both Atlanta's vibrant community of puppet artists and the larger national trend as the art form comes of age. Alongside such recent additions as adult-oriented animation and graphic novels, puppetry is demanding a place at the grown-ups' table.
Making puppets seems like an Old World craft in a high-tech era, evoking images of Geppetto carving Pinocchio by candlelight. In 2005 Michael Haverty traveled to Palermo, Sicily, to study the centuries-old Opera Dei Pupi marionette style, which strongly influences As I Lay Dying's Southern carnival design and music. He estimates that only five or six families in all of Sicily are still doing puppetry. You wonder if it's a doomed, antiquated profession like watch-making or glassblowing.
For committed puppeteers across the city and across the nation, the exact opposite is true: The appeal of the work lies in the craft. For more than a year, Haverty hand-carved As I Lay Dying's entire cast, along with various coffins, mules and other Southern gothic puppets. Woodworking and handicrafts run in his family – he's related, on his father's side, to the Havertys Furniture chain, and has uncles who make guitars and cabinets by hand.
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