Not many people can even lift a marionette without making a fatally entwined, puppet-hospital case of it. Try to imagine, then, picking one up and manipulating it so it looks like it's singing and dancing, conversing, thinking, handling pea-sized objects, and trying on clothes. If you could actually do that, you'd be in line some day for a job in the professional puppet business. As far as we know, there are no job openings at Central Park's 56-year-old Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, but there is a new marionette show there, the first completely new production in three years: A Princess, An Emperor and a Duck: Three Classic Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. If you're clutching your head in agony at the idea of a puppet show, stop. Forget the idea of a sweat sock stretched over a fist. This isn't a puppet show; it's puppetry, entailing at least as much art and craft as traditional theater. Created for kids ages 3-7, the new show, presented by the City Parks Foundation, offers Andersen's classic tales of "The Princess and the Pea", "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "The Ugly Duckling" in three diverse settings: Africa, China, and of course, Central Park. The show was commissioned specifically for its present venue, which is typical of the way the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater does things; nothing is second-hand — from its set design to its puppets. (The theater has, in fact, its own master wood carver, Addis Williams). You know you're in for a quality experience as soon as you step in. The theater is housed in the park's Swedish Cottage — hence its name — which was imported in 1876 and became the permanent home of the traveling Cottage Marionette Theatre in 1947. The building now features a multi-colored proscenium stage, approximately 15 feet wide and 10 feet high, with eight rows of finished wooden benches that seat a capacity of about 90. The setting is intimate; the stage is only about 3-1/2 feet off the floor, or about the height of a young child. The Andersen triple play benefits from clever scripts, featuring realistically drawn characters that talk and sing songs sprinkled with colloquialisms and witticisms. (As the "makers" of the Emperor's new clothes sing, "Our clothes are a steal/except they're not real"). Each story contains a musical interlude or two, and one or two scene changes involving a darkening of the theater's house lights for approximately 30 seconds. (The blackouts, brief as they are, may nevertheless unnerve some very young attendees). The simple sets are designed in depth, enhanced by elegant props, and generally supported by bright but effective lighting. Most importantly, the performances by the theater's nine puppeteers are exceptional; there are moments when as many as three marionettes appear in a scene, exchanging dialogue, dancing or singing. The voices, provided by nearly 20 actors, are recorded, but the puppeteers never miss a beat. Their work is as graceful as that of many human actors, and often even more so.
Info: Where: Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, Central Park at 79th Street and West Drive (just south of the Delacorte Theatre) When: Through April 3, 2004. Fall schedule (through December 23): Tuesday-Friday, 10:30am & noon; Saturdays, 1pm. Winter and holiday schedule (December 26-January 3, 2004): 11am & 1pm. Midwinter schedule (February 17-February 20): 11am & 1pm. Through April 3, 2004: Use fall schedule. Closed Sundays and Mondays, plus Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 19 & 20 How much: $6 adults; $5 children (suggested donation); reservations required For more info and reservations: (212) 988-9093