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Mexican art form comes to life in puppet show

Mexican art form comes to life in puppet show

A cast of four puppeteers and two crew members will describe how the Mexican art form of Oaxacan woo
Mexican art form comes to life in puppet show
Dream Carver tells the story of Mateo, a boy growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico whose father has taught him to carve small wooden toys in the traditional way. (Swazzle photo)

A cast of four puppeteers and two crew members will describe how the Mexican art form of Oaxacan wood carvings originated using large, colorful, intricately crafted puppets inspired by the carvings themselves.

The bilingual, musical puppet show “Dream Carver” is set for 3 p.m. Sunday at The Egg. The production, created by the puppet company Swazzle in Glendale, Calif., is based on the story of the same name, written by Diana Cohn and illustrated by Amy Cordova. “Dream Carver” is Swazzle’s first large-scale, live theatrical production, and the company’s co-owners, brothers Sean and Patrick Johnson, hope it will be the first of many.

Like Mateo, the main character of the story, the brothers had a dream. While Mateo dreams of creating large, colorful wood carvings of animals, the Johnsons, who began doing puppet shows when they were in high school, aspired to create a puppet company. Their dream, inspired in part by the work of Muppets creator Jim Henson, became reality in 2004.

’Dream Carver’

WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $12; adults free when accompanied by a child (one adult per child)

MORE INFO: 473-1845, www.theegg.org

Since then, Swazzle’s puppets have been featured in major productions, including the “Pee-Wee Herman Show” on Broadway, a puppet version of “The Simpsons,” the latest Muppet movie, and Disney theatrical shows. They have a host of big-name corporate clients, too, including Old Spice, Subaru and American Greetings.

Shifting gears

The brothers used to do a lot of puppet shows for libraries, schools, and birthday parties, but in the past couple of years, with the help of the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., the company has shifted its focus to large, live theatrical productions and expanded its venues.

“Dream Carver” came about when the brothers were looking for a new idea for a show with an international theme. Sean Johnson perused Mexican folktales at the library, but became discouraged by what was available.

“As luck would have it, I came across this book, ‘Dream Carver,’ ” he said.

He loved the story, so Swazzle acquired the license to turn it into a puppet show, and with the help of a Spanish-speaking puppeteer on staff, created a bilingual script.

“If you’re a native English speaker, you’ll understand the show, and if you’re a native Spanish speaker, you’ll understand,” Johnson said. “There are enough phrases repeated so that the show will work for many audiences.”

Oaxaca is a state in Mexico where artists have become known for their wood carvings of animals. “Dream Carver” tells the story of young Mateo, who instead of carving small wooden, trinket-like animals to sell to tourists, like his father, dreams of doing something bigger. He ends up creating large, colorful carvings of animals like a jaguar, rabbit, bird and frog.

Carving out a show

Based on the carvings in the book, Swazzle’s puppet designers crafted a cast of animal puppets, ranging in size from 21⁄2 to 5 feet tall, out of foam and multicolored craft fur. The jaguar features 200 hand-stitched spots. These puppets appear from behind theatrical flats in the set, as well as with the puppeteers in full view of the audience.

“They get those puppets nice and close to the audience,” Johnson said. “It helps involve the children in the action of the show, as well.”

Elementary-age children are the target audience for the show.

“It doesn’t talk down to kids or fly over their heads, either,” Johnson said. “The very young will enjoy the colorful puppets and fun songs, and the older kids will enjoy the message.”

Even adults will appreciate the family dynamic that goes on in the story of a son who desires to break with tradition and create his own path, something many families go through.

Swazzle’s “Dream Carver” got the approval of both the story’s author and illustrator. Johnson said Cohn and Cordova “were literally in tears seeing their work realized on stage” and have been very supportive of the production.

Johnson hopes audiences will have fun and enjoy the message of the story.

“This is a show about the arts, creativity, bucking tradition, finding your own way,” Johnson said. “There’s so much more to life that if you can dream it, you can do it.”

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