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The Arts

The devil you know

Bluebird Theatre tries a new form — puppetry — to tell the old story of Faust

“The Green Gold Tree” takes place Saturday and Sunday, June 23 and 24, at 1 p.m.at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, 10 Vernon St. For more information about the project or to donate, visit kck.st/faust_puppets.

SAXTONS RIVER—A tiny Vermont puppet theater is ready to take on one of the most monumental works in the canon of Western literature.

For the past eight months, the Bluebird Theatre has been developing The Green Gold Tree, a new multimedia marionette play inspired by Goethe’s Faust.

The show will have its world premiere at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) on June 23 and 24 at 1 p.m., where it will be presented as a work in progress.

The Bluebird Theatre is a marionette theater based in Saxtons River, founded by the husband-and-wife team of Donald Saaf and Julia Zane, with assistance from their children, Isak and Olaf, and neighbors and friends. Past performances at Bluebird have included The Night of Wishes, Santa Lucia, and Anonymous Nonsense, and The Green Gold Tree promises to be its largest and most adventuresome work to date.

“This show is so grand that we find ourselves looking for real funding for the first time,” says Zane.

With such a need, she and her husband have turned to Kickstarter to attempt to raise $7,500.

Kickstarter is a web-based funding platform for creative projects. Projects get donations from friends, fans, and the public. Kickstarter projects are all-or-nothing funding — that is, if all of the $7,500 is not pledged in the allotted time, the project does not get any of the cash.

“We plan to put this money towards paying musicians and puppeteers for rehearsals, for the creation of the remaining puppets, the writing of the music, the building of the stage, and technical gear,” said Zane.

The company’s goal is to have the piece finished by the end of June.

Performance art

Both Saaf and Zane consider themselves primarily fine artists rather than theatrical showmen. They said The Green Gold Tree is as much a puppet show as a multimedia performance piece.

Saaf is a painter, sculptor, musician, and art educator. His work has been shown in galleries and museums throughout New England and he has illustrated 14 children’s books. He has written the music for Bluebird Theatre productions, and plays live for its performances. His band, The Bluebird Orchestra, has just recorded its first album.

Zane has worked as a professional artist for more than 20 years, showing her art mainly in New England. Her work hangs in many private and corporate art collections, and is now part of a BMAC exhibit.

Saaf and Zane created the Bluebird Theater merely as a hobby to divert them from their more “serious” art and to entertain their two children. Increasingly, the marionette shows have become an important part of their creative output. Zane said he’s been working on The Green Gold Tree for more than a year, but in “the last few months it has taken over my life.”

“It has become a perfect vehicle for a mid-life crisis,” he joked.

The idea for The Green Gold Tree evolved from Zane’s Carl Jung reading group.

“A bunch of woman sitting around discussing Jung morphed into other things,” said Zane, “such as Faust, which was one of Jung’s favorite works. This led me to read Goethe. I was so taken by it, I remember casually saying I would like to make a marionette play out of the work,” she said.

Soon thereafter, she received seed grants from the Henson Foundation, the Vermont Arts Council, Scott Elliott, and a donation of gold from a “mysterious woman.”

“It turns out that I had made my own Faustian bargain to get this piece done,” she said.

A two-part epic

Zane said that Faust is a daunting piece of literature, which is actually two works. Goethe completed part one in 1806. Many years later, he finished the more poetically complex part two in 1831.

“Most adaptations of Faust only center on the first part,” she said, “but we wanted to tackle the whole thing.”

Although Goethe’s Faust is a play, it was never really meant to be performed live. It is what is called a “closet drama,” which means it was designed to be read.

“In fact, if it were performed,” Zane said, “it would take 22 hours to do the whole thing.”

“We were a little less ambitious than that,” she added, “and wanted to keep the show under two hours, so a big part of our job was paring down Faust.”

Zane said their goal was to use Goethe’s original translated text.

“As painters, Donald and I were drawn to segments of the story which we found to be visually compelling, as well as to some of the larger themes, such as that of the redemptive power of nature.”

They wanted to create a multi-layered, rich and entertaining experience, and still retain that spirit of “shoe-stringiness,” that is inherent in Bluebird Theater puppet shows.

Zane designed the marionettes for The Green Gold Tree, and Saaf painted background slides that will be projected onstage by magic lantern, an image projector invented in the 1600s.

Michelle Ratte is creating costumes for the puppets and Duke Johnson and Rick Contino of the Bluebird Orchestra, are helping with musical collaboration. Oliver Schemm, is constructing the new stage, and Julie Jensen is helping to make puppets.

The Faust website (yes, there is such a place: www.faust.com) says that while Goethe’s Faust has been called the definitive Faust, there is no one Faust story, instead, there are hundreds or thousands of variations on the theme in theater, music, film, poetry, art, and literature.

The site notes that Goethe was familiar with the Faust legend from his youth, because a puppet show, Dr. Faust, was frequently performed at local street fairs.

Zane is delighted to be able to return the story through Goethe to its source, by transforming Faust once again into a puppet play.

“We are going back to the original,” she said, “with puppets talking to puppets, but in the true spirit of Bluebird to keep it rinky-dink.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #154 (Wednesday, May 30, 2012).

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