“The Table”: A User’s Guide to Bunraku Puppetry

We watch a romance of our two hands’ collaboration and independence. It might indeed remind us that our hands can do more than we ever let them do…they become parables of the fate of hands, an extension of the fate of bodies.
— Kenneth Gross, Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, 54

When Blind Summit Theatre’s The Table came to the region for first time back in 2013, the Chicago Tribune reviewer boiled the production down to one sentence: “Although exceptionally funny, The Table mostly is a deconstruction of belief.” I myself am increasingly fascinated with puppetry both because of its gradual rise in mainstream theatrical consumption (I am thinking here of both big budget things like War Horse, more localized shows like The Feast, and things expressly rather hip like Wyatt Cenac’s stand-up special, Brooklyn) and because of the ways puppetry quibbles with usual definitions of theatre or theatrical experience. I am a huge fan of Kenneth Gross’ recent work, Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life (University of Chicago Press, 2011), because it attempts to sketch the set of affects puppets inculcate in us, the audience, in that moment when “they give us a glimpse of a hidden mystery, a piece of an inner life neither quite body nor quite thought. It is as if they could give us a glimpse of the roots of all theatre” (36). So while I would not quibble with Chris Jones’ assessment that The Table indeed deconstructs puppetry as a form (and indeed my companion and I consistently laughed throughout the show), it is a production in the service of a different kind of theatrical experience, one inherently uninterested in narrative but deeply invested in belief.

As a theatre scholar, I often come across references to bunraku, a Japanese form of puppet theatre, in theoretical analyses of the genre. I never know what to make of them, unable to substitute theatrical experiences with which I am familiar to piece together a scenario featuring large costumed wooden puppets, puppeteers who are onstage, and a chanter who speaks all the lines. The centerpiece of The Table production is an Anglophone bunraku puppet named Moses. Whether he is meant to represent the prophet featured in the Bible, Torah, and Qu’ran, or a puppet hired to play this Moses remains unclear. That he was hired to do so is the extent of the narrative here, and sets the metatheatric tone of the production. Moses tours the table for us on which he lives, introduces us to his three puppeteers, and breaks down the guiding principles of how his form is operated: breath, focus, and fixed point. Breath refers to the puppeteers breathing together to imbue Moses with the rhythm of life-ness. Focus is the dictate that the puppeteers only and ever look at the puppet, not the audience or each other, for the sake of sustained synchronicity. Fixed point refers to the fact that although their labor is divided, the puppeteers must demonstrate in concert a coherent intention of movement; or, simply put, this means that the puppet must have one limb on the ground at all times in order to convincingly simulate gravity. Through his exegesis of his own movement, Moses “serves as an ambassador or pilgrim to human beings from the world of things. The puppet is the material thing that has got an education, that has learned to act” (Gross 33).

From other reviews and videos I’ve seen, this is the normal course for a performance of The Table. Unique to Friday’s staging however was an especial attention to hands, both that of the puppeteers and Moses’ own. Once we had been given these instructions, the presence of the puppeteers begin to fade from our awareness. Then, just as we were being taken in by a higher level of willing suspension of disbelief—that the zucchinis were looking quite good this year in Moses’ garden on the table—things began to fall apart. In his attempt to demonstrate that his alive-ness is not constrained to his puppet form, Moses asked his puppeteers to put him down and let go. The hands of Sean Garratt and Laura Caldow took up their positions again as if still holding Moses, and Mark Down, as the puppet’s voice, continued to go on as to how he/Moses was still present. While we could see the body of Moses lying there, he seemed to be still alive between the hands of Garratt, Cladow, and Down. The puppeteers then broke apart, whirled about the stage, fracturing the essence of Moses that had just been reliably invisible between them. He seems imbued only in Down’s voice, but at this point I felt I was loosing a grasp on the thing called Moses altogether. That is, until the hands zoomed back together, holding an invisible Moses again. As the voice of Moses directs their hands to take him up again, I now feel as if I have a visual to Gross’ assertion that “the hand becomes for the puppet an ensouling thing…the hand, the extension and toll of our will, becomes the moving force—physical and spiritual—of a thing with a will and life of its own, a will that yet remains tied into the bodily, psychic motion of the manipulator. It becomes both object and source of animation” (51-2). In short, it begs our brains to linger on a question we are rarely asked take up: where does the body end and the soul begin?

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of The Table aside from Moses himself is the level of improvisation built into the production. One would not assume that in puppetry, a form requiring intense planning and choreography, that there would be much room for play. But perhaps the best part of the evening was when a member of the audience, Deb, was asked to come up and run the right arm and leg of Moses while Garratt went to the loo. Deb, a woman perhaps in her early 50s and dressed for a night of classy, savvy theatre, played to Moses’ sexual advances: while kissing him on the nose, she inadvertently caused his delicately carved hand to be dislodged from the rest of his arm. Just as the puppeteers give over their primacy as actors to the puppet they control, to centralize an object and give it mimetic potential, in this moment they further gave up their agency over the action to the whim of catastrophe and its potentials. My guess is that an additional half hour was drawn from the severed hand, with blood spurting about to ruin Moses’ garden, his fear of re-attachment, this ironic squeamishness of a thing once alive now inanimate. In such tribulations we were brought to a quiet moment of catharsis, when Moses himself questions God of his existence, his strife, his reason for being—and why this particular table, of course. From this quiet moment of despair we were then allowed denouement with the reattachment of the hand, the reunion of the synecdochical part with its whole, and concluding jig in which Moses and his puppeteers got to express the virtuosic limits of his movement.

As a production, The Table asks us to contemplate the threshold between things and beings, between animate and inanimate. Moses is at the center of a number of intersections: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; life, death, and object; theatre, play, and theory. Residing on these thresholds, Moses the Puppet seems to represent the notion of an idealized form. That he lives on top of a table becomes especially important then. In Plato’s theory of forms, the table is the most famous example: while there are countless tables in the world, they all share an essential essence at their core, a Form we recognize as “tableness”aspatially and atemporally. Moses lives on a table, the example by which is argued that there are universal ideals, fundamental aspects of reality not a priori conditioned by context. It would seem that on his table, Moses is meant to represent to us the ideal form of being, of liveness that we find when standing on just the right threshold.


  • Blind Summit Theatre‘s production of The Table plays in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus 22-24 October 2014.
  • Note, there is absolutely no late seating from this production (trust me, I’ve tried).
  • You can also download the program for this production, or check out the library guide here .
  • Check out the trailer for this uniquely creative and intimate production below:

War and puppet horses on Broadway

Now that the first flush of summer has past, I am taking a break from the normal Shakespearean fare here at Bite Thumbnails in order to review some contemporary theatre. This is a piece of a series of posts reviewing Tony-nominated productions I was fortunate to see on a recent trip to New York City, including Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, War Horse, Arcadia, and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.


War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre has something for everyone, at rightly deserved this year’s Tony for Best Play because of this wide appeal while still challenging audiences. As you may have heard, this story about a boy and his horse spans the WWI period, posing as both a children’s story of innocent compassion for animal life as well as to comment on the non-anthropogenic wastes of modern warfare. Lincoln Center’s all-American cast worked to reboot the successful original, initially staged at the National in the UK to great acclaim, in a much smaller space that required innovative staging. The most difficult challenge faced by the US team, besides accommodating this work to an entirely new demographic, was the way in which they deployed puppetry to tell a serious story without cheapening or sugar-coating the mission.

The larger-than-life horse puppets presented an interesting contrast to the war time context of the piece. For one, the horses were controlled by three puppeteers each–dubbed the head, the heart, and the hind respectively–providing an overt visceral portrayal of a war that has begun to fade significantly in common memory. The intensity of their precise physicality of the animals cannot be lost on anyway: whinnies were harmonized, and the somewhat skittish awareness of horses was mimicked by ear movements and breathing that made you forget they were in fact puppets rather than the real thing. My favorite part is still the opening scene where Joey as a foal tries out his legs, walks around stage and just breathes and smells the ground. This was followed up by a full-grown Joey (just a touch larger than a real Hunter) entering behind his younger self to signal the passage of time, which was extremely powerful. The production is a good example of the eco-critical movements in performance and literature that consist of a purposeful move aware from anthropocentric plot lines and characterizations.

As I mentioned, using WWI as a topical setting for what was initially a children’s story is an interesting move, reminding me of works like that became prevalent in the decade. Joey is an actual fighter in the war, struggling against tanks and barbed wire. Choosing to stage an animal observer at the center of the piece, able to cross sides without allegiances, brought the reality and terror of war right to the forefront rather than smoothed away–something I expected. The trauma of modernity and technological advances in warfare seems to elude methods of bald literary consideration; War Horse is like Bengal Tiger in that they are both part of a compositional trend to  consider modern war from animal or unconventional perspectives.

What made War Horse so successful for me was its mass appeal across generations who have different experiences of war life, as well as appealing to our need to protect innocence–child and animal alike. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house considering it was the week before the Tony’s and our audience was likely made up of veteran theatre-goers and last-minute Tony voters. It is a beautiful work, both aesthetically and emotionally, deserving it’s Tony wins for innovation in execution, explication, and universality.