Times Theater Writer

If you ever wondered where the earliest concepts for the movies came from, Wednesday's performance of "Gilgamesh" by Italy's shadow puppet theater, Teatro Gioco Vita, would have provided some of the answer.

In the continuing mix of workshops, exhibits and performances that crowd the Puppeteers of America's six-day international conclave on the campus of the Claremont Colleges, Gioco Vita's appearance at the Garrison Theatre offered a revealing marriage of ancient art and new technology.

Using a simple rectangular screen (fronted by a raked wooden stage the puppeteers conceded served no purpose other than to lead the eye to the images above it), "Gilgamesh" demonstrated that the best invention is not necessarily the offspring of necessity but that of creatively restless minds.

Gioco Vita's imaginative exploration of technology resulted in unprecedented effects of modern animation with which to tell "the oldest story in the world."

By manipulating directional light, distance, intensity and focus (from sharp to blurred), the group has created voluntary distortions and clever juxtapositions that mimic the cinematic close-up and film's fluid sense of perpetual motion to frequently stunning effect.

With unflagging interest, we followed the crowded adventures of the arrogant Mesopotamian ruler, Gilgamesh--living through his own youthful lust for power, confronting the wrath of the gods, discovering friendship, then pain, then powerlessness, to end up a much chastened and wiser old man.

The production is handsomely designed by Emanuele Luzzati, written and directed by Tonino Conte and performed by four nimble puppeteers (Luciana Cavazzina, Federico Marzaroli, Fabrizio Montecchi and Paolo Valli), and it was hard to know where to place principal responsibility for the visual excitement of this "Gilgamesh" other than collectively.

Having thus lavished praise, one should add that other aspects of Wednesday's performance were less satisfying. Even as one marveled at the visual refinements (and the intricacy of the footwork that had to be going on backstage), one also winced at the loudness of the faintly muffled sound track. State of the art it was not. Artistic director Diego Maj later implicated borrowed and unfamiliar equipment, insisting the situation is different when the company is more fully in charge of the audio portion of its mesmerizing show.

The festival climaxes today with a puppet parade beginning at 1:30 p.m. at Pitzer College parking lot. It will end at 2 p.m. with a performance of "Traveling Circus" by members of Vermont's celebrated Bread and Puppet Theatre. Both parade and performance are free. (714) 621-8258).

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