A Master at Stringing
the Audience Along

Phillip Huber’s puppets play musical instruments, sing, cavort and soar with humor in this low-tech, high-skill tour de force.

The marionette work in the Oscar-nominated “Being John Malkovich” was so stunning that even some professional animators were convinced it had to have been done via computer imaging.
The man actually pulling the strings, however, was professional marionette master Phillip Huber, whose impressive talents are on display in his solo show, “Suspended Animation,” at the Santa Monica Puppet and Magic Center.
Don’t expect the film’s “angst-ridden marionette melodrama,” Huber warns at the start. His aim, he says, is “simple, unabashed entertainment.” While “simple” hardly describes Huber’s artistry in manipulating the multiple strings that bring his eccentric cloth-and-wood characters to life, “unabashed entertainment” is right on the money.
Among the show’s beguiling vignettes, performed to a recorded soundtrack, a violinist named Manuel
DExterity shows off his virtuoso talents; an elegant Pierrot conquers the high wire, operatic diva
Priscilla Pipes emotes and a shy skating panda executes all manner of smooth moves to the music of Offenbach.
Other vignettes include a yodeler, a bubble-gum chewer, glamorous trapeze artist Louisa and a Liza Minnelli look-alike.
Huber, who performs cabaret-style--he is onstage with his handcrafted puppets, manipulating them in full view of the audience--is a subtle part of the performance, silently admonishing or encouraging the varied characters as needed with a shake of the head or a smile; echoing their footwork with his own in dance sequences or deftly using his leg or knee as bench, wall or leaning post.
In one tour-de-force comical highlight, finicky old pianist Sir Cedric dusts off his bench with his handkerchief, demands a glass of wine to be placed just so and carefully lifts his fancy frock coat as he sits down, all the while giving the audience sly glances over his shoulder. When he finally starts playing, his renditions of selections from Rossini are so vigorous that the piano fights back.
A new monkey character, who is getting a tryout, was a bit wobbly in his acrobatic routine at Saturday’s matinee; otherwise the show is a marvel of keenly observed gestures and actions that are remarkably true to life: When Huber’s pianist and violinist play their instruments, the illusion is so vivid that their fingers seem to be moving on keys and strings; when Pierrot painstakingly moves across the high wire and Louisa does a flip over her trapeze, Huber cuts no corners in set up or execution.
The show, which ends with an audience question-and-answer session, is accessible to children, but it is designed for adults who can appreciate not only the charms of the puppet personalities but the art and the artist.
“Suspended Animation,” Santa Monica Puppet and Magic Center, 1255 2nd St., Santa Monica, Wednesday-Friday at 7p.m. $35. (310) 656-0483. Running time: 90 minutes.


Times Staff Writer
September 17 2002


Manuel D'Exterity
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Shirley U'Jest
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