What images first come to mind when you think of a puppet show? Punch and Judy, perhaps? Or “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music? Grover, Cookie Monster and the Count from Sesame Street? If those are your expectations, Birdheart, now playing at Z Space in San Francisco, will foil them. Conceived of and performed by Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane, this puppet show largely eschews a traditional narrative and favors instead the art of visual transformation.
Crouch is a British theater designer and puppet maker based in Brooklyn and well known for his work with the Improbable Theatre Company on such shows as The Devil and Mister Punch and Shockheaded Peter. In 2015, he received a Tony nomination for the scenic design of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In comparison to that raucous showstopper of a musical, Birdheart lives in a hushed and intimate space.
Lane makes up the other half of the duo. A composer and musician by background (she is a member of the hip, New York band The Lascivious Biddies) she is nevertheless an equal partner to Crouch in the art of making inanimate objects spring to life.
Crouch and Lane are already on stage as the audience enters the auditorium. They sit next to each other on stools, quietly cutting shapes out of a flesh-colored fabric that pile up at their feet. They look like members of a knitting bee or a sewing circle, fastidious with the work at hand. Once everyone is seated and the lights dimmed, the performers put their scissors down and walk off stage.
When they return, each of their faces is covered with a blank mask made from the cut pieces of fabric. Once the performers complete each other’s masks, Crouch grabs a banjo and begins to pluck a jaunty tune. Lane then retrieves her comically large double-bass from backstage and they proceed to finish the song together. For a few minutes, Crouch and Lane appear to be puppets themselves, entirely self-created and entirely alive.
This scene, in fact, serves as a preamble to the core part of the program. And it works beautifully. The sweet, lighthearted introduction helps to ease the audience into the more serious content of Birdheart -- a story inspired in part by news stories the artists read a few years ago about albatrosses consuming plastic and other human debris.
It isn't until Crouch and Lane end the song and remove their masks that Birdheart truly begins. Standing side by side behind a table topped with a sandbox, the puppeteers bring a mannequin made from brown construction paper to life. On the soundtrack, ocean waves crash on some distant shore. We are transported to a desert island with a solitary creature wandering on a beach somewhere.
Seemingly attached at the hip and sharing an eerie psychic rapport that informs their synchronized movements, the two puppeteers hold the fragile creature up, skillfully make it dance, and eventually give it wings. Birdheart is moving. Despite the primitive materials, it never feels trivial. Crouch and Lane are performing an act of careful attention. They’ve imagined a bird that not only dreams of flight but also achieves it.
Birdheart plays through Sunday, Apr. 17 at Z Space in San Francisco. Go here for more information.