The children are snickering. Nicolo, a bright-eyed wooden jester clad in a green and peppermint-striped outfit, seems to be trying to escape the puppeteer holding his strings. Suddenly, Nicolo turns his back to us and bounces his rear. Everyone bursts into laughter.
It’s Sunday afternoon, a little after 1 pm, and JCTC-KIDS, the children’s arm of Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC), is opening its first performance of the season: Beauty and the Beast. “We started JCTC-KIDS to serve all the families in our wonderful, diverse community. With help from our supporters, we’re able to keep our JCTC-KIDS ticket prices and workshop classes affordable and through our Art-4-All program, we subsidize children from low-income families and under-served populations, because we believe theater and the arts should benefit every child, ” says Olga Levina, the artistic director at Jersey City Theater Center.
Before the show starts, Mike Leach, Puppetworks executive director and chief puppeteer, teaches the kids some theater etiquette: why it’s important not to talk during the show, and why it’s encouraged to clap and giggle. Or rather, Nicolo the jester teaches them, and they are thoroughly enjoying his lesson. For some of the children, who range from toddler age to older school-aged, this introductory lesson is necessary because it’s clearly their first time watching a live show. Leach also demonstrates how a puppet works, and the kids are fascinated. By the time the show begins, everyone knows how to say “marionette,” that Nicolo and the other puppets move through a choreographed dance of 9 to 13 strings, and that Leach and co-puppeteer Jeremy Kerr are pulling the strings behind the stage.
Chief Puppeteer Mike Leach with marionette “Beauty.” Photo by Cindy Chang
Once the curtains open, we all forget the mechanics. This is not the Beauty and the Beast you saw from Disney. In Puppetworks’ version, adapted from the original 1740 French story by Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve, there’s an evil green troll, a sleepy talking snail, and an adventurous leaping frog that just can’t seem to stay home. Beauty and her family are here, of course, outfitted in clothes typical for 15th century France. So is the lion-like Beast, played by actor Jeremy Kerr in a costume designed by frequent Jim Henson Company collaborator James Wotjal. The story told on stage is more nuanced than Disney’s version, but it’s still one of Puppetworks’ most popular shows. Leach says they don’t try to simplify the stories, because “when you challenge kids, they learn.”
The children sit on a large mat directly in front of the stage, so the adults sitting in the chairs behind them can be forgotten, there is also ample space in the back where young children can run around if they’re feeling antsy during the show. Today, however, everyone watches in rapt attention. “You’d be surprised how well children take to live performance,” says Levina. “I took my youngest daughter to Puppetworks in Brooklyn when she was 8 months old and her brother was around 2.”
In fact, the whole family loved Puppetworks so much they kept going back for years. When Levina discovered that Mike Leach grew up in Jersey City and continues to live here, she began talking with him about bringing Puppetworks to Jersey City. Leach says he was definitely intrigued from the beginning, but he had to determine whether the logistics would work. The puppet stage and the sets for each show are not easy to set up and take down every week, and the puppets themselves are 7-8 pounds each. But Leach discovered that “Olga really understood what our needs were, and Ben [LoPiccolo, JCTC’s executive director] is a ‘we can do anything’ kind of guy, so we brought our shows over.” Puppetworks first performed at Jersey City Theater Center in 2014, with the JCTC-KIDS production of Cinderella. The current form of the Puppet Theater at Merseles Studios was unveiled in 2015 with the performance of Pinocchio. It’s clear they’re here to stay.
JCTC-KIDS production of Beauty and the Beast plays on Sundays at 1 pm through June 12, at Merseles Studios (339 Newark Ave.); including puppet demonstrations, it runs a little over an hour long. For tickets and more information, visit jctc.org.
Top photo: “Beauty” marionette and actor Jeremy Kerr as the lion-like Beast, courtesy Jersey City Theater Center