The Dragon King by Tanglewood Marionnettes kicks off this year's SummerFest at The Center for Puppetry Arts. SummerFest usually presents shows from visiting puppetry troupes from around the nation, and The Dragon King may be the best all-around family show by an out-of-town-troupe that I've seen at the Center.
Based in Ware, Mass., Tanglewood Marionnettes adapted The Dragon King based on a Chinese folktale, in which a drought has turned the land brown and lifeless. (It could be torn from today's headlines.) For reasons unknown, the supernatural Dragon King has neglected his duties of bringing rain to countryside, so a grandmother goes on a quest to find the Dragon King in his undersea kingdom.
Not surprisingly, the show features many influences from Chinese culture, including a lovely, scrolling backdrop that imitates Chinese illustration style, as well as a lively parade dragon that snakes around the audience near the end. The script draws cleverly from other storytelling traditions as well, from Aesop's fable of "The Tortoise and the Hare" to the movie Finding Nemo (in thankfully subtle ways). The marionettes, manipulated by Peter Schaefer and Jenn Tebo, are absolutely gorgeous, particularly such animals as the hare, a sea turtle and a giant squid at least six feet tall. In one of the show's most charming surprises, a pair of huge goldfish (like koi pond escapees) turn out to be "flip-over puppets," and when their oversized tails turn inside out, they turn into completely different characters.
Tanglewood's dialogue and music are prerecorded, which can sometimes rob a puppetry performance of a certain spontaneity, but Tanglewood makes up for that by having puppeteer Peter Schaefer chat up the audience before and after the performance. Plus, Schaefer and Tebo perform in full view of the audience for most of the show, which adds to the personal touch.
The Dragon King plays through July 13 at the Center for Puppetry Arts. The remaining shows on the SummerFest bill are The Bremen Town Musicians by Crabgrass Puppet Theatre of Halifax, Vt. (July 15-27), and Sleeping Beauty, a one-puppeteer performance by Paul Messner Puppets of Kansas City, Mo. (July 29-Aug. 10).