In the quiet way of the art form it celebrates, the 46th annual Puppeteers of America Festival dropped into town last weekend for a six-day stay at the Claremont Colleges. But if Sunday's performances are a sign of what's in store, any silent treatment of this festival amounts to a cultural crime.

The festivities are titled "An International Celebration of Puppet Theatre," and in both global scope and quality the strongest echo is that of last summer's Olympic Arts Festival--albeit in miniature. Making rare visits are companies of legendary status, like Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theatre and Italy's Teatro Gioco Vita. Unlike the Olympic bash, however, American groups are making an early and profound impression.

Profound is the word for the Underground Railway Theater's production of Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale," in which bountiful feats of illusion mesh with the traumatizing effects of war, imagistic surprises blend with strong social protest and every stereotype one ever held about puppetry is turned on its head. The clarion call sent out Sunday night at the splendid Garrison Theatre was unmistakable: When it comes to making political theater, puppeteers will stand second to no one.

The Underground Railway's first feat--and perhaps the most difficult--was to contemporize Stravinsky's World War I story of a young violinist (John Lewandowski) seduced by the Devil (Wes Sanders) into joining the Army and, later, a life of gambling.

In the new adaptation, our hero is snatched away from the hitchhiker's life in Nebraska for the jungles of Vietnam. Coming home from a hated war, he declines into a depression perfectly expressed in Stravinsky's jagged-edged score--music just this side of insane--and impeccably interpreted by the Atlanta Chamber Players.

But the Devil isn't done with his Faust. Having been an ace helicopter pilot in the war, he's ideal for radar-avoiding gunrunning to right-wing thugs in Central America. Falling into a bottomless hell, he becomes a puppet of greed.

The medium gracefully meets the message, and both are heightened to a degree seldom equaled in puppet theater. You swear that the Soldier is crying at times, even though you know that he's only a Japanese-style "wagon-puppet" (controlled with rods by a puppeteer sitting on a squat dolly) made of cloth and wood. Adapting the ways of fairy tales to those of political agitprop is no mean trick, but to derive such expressionism as this company evokes from such simplicity is the paragon of art.

Just as the Underground Railway (the name honors the escape route of American slaves and, with this play, the same route for Central American refugees) doesn't shirk in revealing the puppeteers of the war machine, so it doesn't shirk its artistic duty in surprising us. Whether it is the sudden visit of a stoned biker or a cubist nightmare of shadow puppetry pulsating to Stravinsky's tonal gyrations, the visual plan is very much a wild trip through a breaking mind. Breaking, but not broken. The violin--and art--win out in the end.

Debra Wise is a cool, Brechtian narrator, and it is she, along with Lewandowski, Sanders and director Irina Niculescu (of the Tandarika Puppet Theatre of Bucharest), who are the brilliant conductors of this Railway. Sadly, this was their only performance here. An encore goes without saying.

Charming, though less memorable, the Grey Seal Puppets' version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's Nightingale" also sent a message. Sometimes, at the Sunday afternoon performance in the cramped McAllister-Gallileo Auditorium, the message--and anything else for that matter--was hard to pick out. But anyone familiar with the original knows it: Technology, in the end, is no match for the natural world. In the Emperor's case, a real, live nightingale can save him from the clutches of Death (the best image here) while the more dazzling mechanical bird just sits there.

For many of the children in the crowd, though, things were surely harder to see and, due to the erratic pace, just as sluggish as the fake bird. Donald Devet and Drew Allison employ Bunraku styles, masks, and shadow, string, hand and rod puppets, but for all the versatility, what was missing was the virtuosity that triggers audible ripples of wonder in theater-going children.

But more virtuosity is to come: Teatro Gioco Vita's "Gilgamesh" (tonight, 7:30); Theatre Sur Le Fil's "Journeys In A Paper World" (Thursday, 1:30 and 4 p.m.); Ta Fantastika's "A Dream" (Thursday, 8 p.m.) all at the Garrison; and Bread and Puppet's Puppet Parade, starting at Pitzer College parking lot, Friday, 1:30 p.m. and ending with its show, "Traveling Circus."

Tickets are limited ((714) 621-8258). Note: Children under six are not admitted to performances at the Garrison Theater.

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