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Keeping Handspring Puppet Company's creations in good repair

Oberon lost his thumb while in Los Angeles. With no warning, pop — it just fell off.

Such are the dangers when you're a character in the Bristol Old Vic's latest production with the Handspring Puppet Company. The collaboration that turned skeletal steel and leather into "War Horse" is at it again, this time creating illusions for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" through Wednesday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica with little more than wood and rubber bands.

The rudimentary puppets in the show do get bashed and occasionally broken, said assistant stage manager Andy Guard, who performed emergency Oberon finger reattachment during the first week "Midsummer's Night" played in L.A. Some are essentially blocks of wood with no mechanical function, but others flutter and fly, as animated as the actors running onstage. Each of the Handspring puppets, Guard said, was created as a piece of art unto itself.


FOR THE RECORD:
The Broad Stage: An April 13 article in the Arts & Books section about the puppets in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica said the production will close Wednesday. It will close Saturday. —


"They instill that from Day 1 — that every puppet has the right to life," he said. "That is their ethos."

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It's an ethos that audiences worldwide are absorbing. By the time the Dutch version of "War Horse" opens in Amsterdam this June, the show will have been seen by more than 4.7 million people since its 2007 premiere. Another Handspring production, "Ouroboros," described as "a love story between a dancer and a poet finding the courage to commit," recently played in Mumbai, and Handspring's "Ubu and the Truth Commission" opens in Bogota, Colombia, this month. Puppets from the company's 2010 production, "Or You Could Kiss Me," have made their way into a museum exhibition: "Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa," on view through June 29 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

For "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Guard and stage manager Robin Longley led us through an up-close look at the puppet cast, at once so spare and simple and yet ingenious in design. Take Cobweb.

"She floats around with hair neat, but she has a scare — a surprise — inside, the mechanics of which are quite spectacular," Guard said.

Inside the hand-carved wood is a control rod that allows the puppeteer to turn Cobweb's head, roll back the eyes and drop the jaw — a visual transformation that Guard said is based on a concept in Japanese craft.

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At another point in the show, when the character of Indian Boy is supposed to swim with jellyfish, a clever rod and pulley system propels the puppet through a band of light onstage.

"It's beautiful. His arms tuck in and stretch forward," Guard said, describing the motion as "perfectly formed pieces of wood" in a ballet of light.

And that giant hand of Oberon? The piece was designed with what Handspring calls a two-bar trigger, so actor David Ricardo-Pearce can manipulate the absurdly gigantic fingers into three positions, all of which feel like natural extensions of the actor's real hand.

In pretty much every case, the motion of the puppets comes from the most basic construction and materials.

"I spend a lot of time replacing rubber bands," Guard said, 15 minutes before curtain last week. Earlier that day he prepared a new prop — a musk rose handed to Bottom in the forest when he's transformed into a donkey. "I spent two hours hammering it out of a new Coke can."

craig.nakano@latimes.com

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