by Sofia Tokar
Do you remember the first time you saw a Pixar animated short? It may have been Luxo Jr. (the little lamp), Geri’s Game (the old man playing chess), For the Birds (my personal favorite), or one of many others. Regardless, those few minutes of animated storytelling manage to evoke joy, pathos, laughter, sympathy, delight—and sometimes all of the above.
Simple Gifts, a collection of vignettes featuring the Cashore Marionettes, is like a puppet version of those Pixar shorts. If I hadn’t seen the show, I would be tempted to call it low-tech; in fact, it is anything but. Joseph Cashore’s handmade marionettes—puppets controlled from above by strings—are sophisticated works of art in action. The puppet master plucks a series of strings to bend a wrist, flick a tail, or wiggle baby feet, and each movement brings the wooden, wire, and papier-mâché figures to life.
Also like Pixar shorts, these stories are suitable for adults as well as children. Some might argue that select topics are too serious for children (for example, Old Mike in “No Address” presents a meditation on homelessness), but I think that’s not giving kids these days enough credit. Most of the scenes are sweet and poignant celebrations of the simple pleasures and moments in this life—a mother putting her baby to bed for the night, a caveman discovering fire, a boy playing with his kite.
My favorite was “A Pastoral,” featuring Cyclone the horse, the only quadrupedal marionette in this show. Set to Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major,” Cyclone releases himself from his corral to explore the wider world, only to be teased by a butterfly.
The simplicity of the story belies the technical complexities at work. Cyclone, made in the mid-1980s, has more than 40 individual strings, which Cashore uses to animate the equine. You’d be surprised how much insight into a horse’s emotional state you can glean from just the movement of his ears and the clippity-clop of his hooves—the same way a little garbage collecting robot comes alive with only movement and robotic sounds in WALL-E.
I believe it was Paulo Coelho who once said, “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” I respectfully disagree. Thanks to the Arts Center, everyone in the audience (wise or not) for the Cashore Marionette’s Simple Gifts was able to experience something at once simple and extraordinary. And that is a real gift.