“XPT: Xperimental Puppetry Theater,” the annual showcase of short experimental puppetry works, at the Center for Puppetry Arts through Sunday, May 20, always encompasses a broad range of pieces: from puppetry to animation, from artists making their first outing in a new medium to seasoned professionals at the top of their game, from heavy subject matter to the totally ridiculous. Though there’s always a little of everything, “XPT” last year was memorable for its overarching spirit of rowdy, bawdy fun. This time, artists weren’t afraid to take on more somber subjects: addiction, death, loss, disease.
Early in the show, “White Horse” depicts a bedtime story told by a father to his daughter which manifests as a shadow play on the wall of her bedroom, while the animated film “BeeSting” gives visuals to a poem about dealing with breast cancer. Both works are remarkable for taking on difficult subject matter with what are typically considered children’s mediums — puppetry and animation — but they’re also marked by a sort of unpolished earnestness that keeps the situations feeling static rather than lively and emotionally affecting.
“Prologue” is interesting for its combination of puppetry and dance, as two wordless, vaguely post-apocalyptic human figures construct and manipulate the bones of a strange horse-like creature. The film “Maiden to Monster,” a grim retelling of the myth of Medusa, is among the strongest works in this year’s showcase, recasting Medusa as a brave victim rather than a hideous monster. The use of mosaics and shadow puppets are especially nice in the film, and the dialogue between Medusa and Perseus is sharply written. “Leukos” closes out the show, depicting a short, surreal, beautifully dreamlike transformation of a dying puppet.
Of course, none of this is to say that rowdy fun is entirely absent this year. Act I closes with “Taming the Lion” as a giant, charmingly constructed crochet lion is introduced and tamed by a sideshow huckster. The film “Rapunzel’s Flight” offers a stop-motion, trippy take on a traditional fairy tale. The film is remarkable as much for its chaotic humor as for its unusual, lush, organic look. “Professor Greg’s Laboratory” integrates puppetry into sketch comedy, as the always awkward situation of a co-worker asking for a date becomes super-awkward when the co-worker is a little glowing molecule-sidekick puppet from a children’s science show.
Best of all is the deliciously whimsical and inventive stop-animation short film “Opening Day.” It seems to effortlessly integrate serious themes and surreal humor, as handless puppets with oddly expressive, sympathetic faces seek to get new hands from a complicated and uncooperative machine.
During intermission, don’t miss the installation “Camera Obscura” next to the bar in the lobby, also among the strongest works in the show. The artists have created an upside-down room for their puppet: seen from the side, it looks like nothing, but seen through a camera obscura, it transforms into a lively and captivating moving image.
The Center for Puppetry Arts is a resource we’re lucky to have in Atlanta, and the annual XPT showcase is fantastic in that it encourages artists to work with new materials and to see how adult themes and subjects can be explored through puppetry and animation. It’s always well worth checking out the results.