By Mara Dresner
NORTH ADAMS – The life of a Parisian art curator committed to the French resistance and to recording the evidence of the Nazis’ plundering of artworks might seem an unlikely subject for puppetry. However, Rose Valland, the curator for the Jeu du Paume Museum, is the central figure of David Lane’s puppet production of “Chronicles of Rose,” presented by Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ (MCLA) Berkshire Cultural Resource Center (BCRC). The next episode of the five-part series will be performed Jan. 23 at 6 p.m. in the Branch Gallery in downtown North Adams.
A puppeteer from North Adams, Lane is working in collaboration with Shawna Reiter and Jonathan Davis of Clunk Puppet Lab on the project as part of MCLA Presents!
Incorporating the use of a combination of table-top staging, moving sculpture, shadow puppetry and slide projections, audiences follow Rose as she desperately tries to undermine Nazi plundering by passing secret messages to the underground while concealing her true identity as an operative. Tanks, bombers and other ominous forces of war portray a stark reality as archival radio footage sets the mood alongside a pop-up puppet Klezmer band.
Lane first became interest in puppetry growing up in Canada.
“Like so many grownups my age, I became enamored by watching Christmas specials,” he said. He was also a fan of “The Muppet Show.” He developed his own craft when he was accepted into the Green Fools Theatre Society.
Lane describes “Chronicles of Rose” as a “silent, narrative puppet show.”
“There isn’t dialogue in it. I’d written a number of scripts with the intention making it a historic dialogue show. I started workshopping it and decided that the dialogue didn’t do it justice. It’s such an enormous story. … Putting words to it didn’t seem right. I ended up cutting all the dialogue and working on a non-dialogue format in which the puppets tell the story through actions and movement.”
He called Valland, who was featured in the documentary “The Rape of Europa,” a “remarkable woman.”
“She’s the person you’d least expect to be a spy. Her museum was taken over by the Nazis for warehousing art that was appropriated by the Nazis. They allowed her to stay on. She was a kind of quiet, bespectacled, shortish woman. Unbeknownst to the Germans, she spoke perfect German and kept careful notes and records,” about the artwork, said Lane, including where the artworks came from, who the original owners were and where the art was transported to. “Even more remarkable is that she would often commit that information to memory and at the end of the day, she would run home and write it in her journals. … We’re talking about thousands and thousands of pieces of art.”
It may seem like an unusually serious topic for puppetry.
“There’s something really kind of wonderful about puppets that you can take a large-scale event and these historical events and kind of distill them down into something small,” said Lane. “A number of people said that watching the show, they feel the immensity of it because the puppets are so small, it amplified the helplessness that the French resistance and Jewish people in Paris during the occupation must have felt.”
The gallery’s intimate space has been a perfect match for the production. The first installments have brought 20 to 30 people to the show.
Once the series is completed, Lane hopes to “eventually distill it down and take the best moments, and put it into single a tourable show of 40 or 50 minutes.”
He hopes that these productions aren’t the end of the story for audiences learning about the life of Rose Valland. “My hope is that people come to the puppet show and are inspired to find out more.”
Lane has seen a “puppetry renaissance over past 20 years,” in part due to the efforts of The Jim Henson Foundation, which has given this project a grant. “It seems to be that people are interested in [puppetry as an] art form more than just children’s entertainment. Now people are accepting it as way of expressing more complex and sophisticated ideas.”
“The Chronicles of Rose” is part of MCLA Presents! Inaugural Puppet Fest. Upcoming shows are on Jan. 23, Feb. 13 and April 30 at 6 p.m. at the Branch Gallery, 18 Holden Street, North Adams. Tickets may be reserved by calling MCLA Presents! at (413) 662-5204. For more information, call (413) 664-8718, or go to mcla.edu/presents.