Under the artistic direction of co-founders Patrick Wadden and Marlena Marallo, Arm-of-the-Sea Theater creates contemporary works of mask and puppet theater in a style that they call “magical realism,” fusing live music with imaginative visuals and performance to tell stories drawn from history, literature, environmental themes and current events. The Saugerties-based ensemble has toured continuously throughout the Northeast since 1982, spending much of each year on the road. But every summer, they come home for their annual outdoor summer production: the Esopus Creek Puppet Suite, which has played at Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park in the village of Saugerties every August since 2001.
“It’s special being in the Waterfront Park,” says Wadden, “because it’s right around the bend from our studio that we’ve had for more than 20 years now. So it’s our neighborhood, and it’s a great spot: a natural amphitheater right on the water.” Another advantage to playing on home turf is “being able to present things on our own terms,” he adds, rather than having to shape the material to fit into the context of the many shows in which they participate throughout the year at numerous cultural centers, festivals and community venues.
And this year’s “Suite” will have a twist: Instead of performing the same show each night of the run, Arm-of-the-Sea Theater plans to present a three-night Puppet Suite Retrospective of works from the company repertoire. By offering a different show each night, audiences can see a range of their work, says Wadden. “We’re kind of excited about mixing it up. If people come for the entire weekend, they’ll see a potpourri of styles and characters.”
Each evening will begin with several short experimental works, followed by the featured production. The multilayered pieces are created to appeal to all ages.
Performances take place Friday through Sunday, August 19 to 21 at 8 p.m. Admission is free to the Friday performance, made possible by a grant and designed to attract new people to see this type of theater. Tickets on Saturday and Sunday cost $10 for adults, $5 for kids or $25 for a family of four, available at the park entrance each night of the show. Audience members are encouraged to arrive early and to bring lawn seating.
The featured production on Friday, August 19 will be 2014’s Hook, Line & Sinker, which explores the Hudson River’s dual identity as both a fertile natural ecosystem and a PCB-contaminated Superfund site. The story celebrates the joys of fishing while offering a cautionary tale about eating fish from the Hudson.
The production on Saturday, August 20 will be The Rejuvenary River Circus from 2012, an allegorical tale about a mythic river messenger and water carrier who, in his travels, encounters a lyrical sea turtle, a fast-talking crow, industrious beavers, filter-feeding oysters and schools of migrating fish. Each offers insight into its particular role in a watershed’s ecosystem.
On Sunday, August 21 the troupe will present City that Drinks the Mountain Sky, originally produced in 1999. The production chronicles the epic story of the struggles over New York City’s aqueducts and reservoirs that provide clear mountain water from the Catskills to nine million downstate residents. Through poetry, puppetry and original music by Dean Jones, the hourlong performance portrays the ongoing story of the watershed and the uneasy marriage of those who must protect its vulnerable flowing treasure. Although this work premiered nearly two decades ago, Arm-of-the-Sea Theater still gets many requests for the work, Wadden says. “It seems to work on a lot of levels,” he adds, noting that the set that Marallo made for the work is particularly beautiful.
Thirty-four years after founding Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, Marallo and Wadden are still very involved in all aspects of the production. Marallo is the primary painter of the distinctive visuals – her work as a printmaker and mosaic artist can be seen on the “Galleries” link of the Arm-of-the-Sea website – and Wadden writes the scripts, manages the company and directs the shows. “But it’s not just Marlena and I,” he says. “We have some great, energetic people involved in the company, and that’s what makes it possible to keep going: people with energy and passion.”
The ensemble casts combine company veterans and community volunteers to bring the dozens of large-scale characters to life. Company performers include Anna Haffner, Dean Jones, Laura Kopczak, Soyal Smalls, Eli Winograd and Patrick Wadden. Local students get involved as well, with a number of the masks and puppet characters created in public workshops and at in-school residencies.
Arm-of-the-Sea will make its other regular annual appearance in Saugerties on October 1 and 2 at the Kiwanis Club’s Hudson Valley Garlic Festival, performing Turtle Island Medicine Show, which premiered in 2006. The contemporary fable is a cautionary tale inspired by the Lenape Indian origin story and troublesome climate reports. “We’ve been doing all work about this region recently,” Wadden says, “making shows that speak for and to this place. But we also do more universal pieces as well. We’ll be doing some new shows this fall that are more widely focused.”