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Puppetry Take-Over: Big Dawg opens week three of Halloween Horror Fest with kid-friendly show

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Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director Steve Vernon got ambitious with Halloween this year. As part of the theatre company’s frightfully delightful roster, Vernon decided that the month of October wouldn’t focus on one, or even two, or even three productions. Thanks to a five-week month, he set in motion four different productions to run every weekend as part of their Halloween Horror Festival, with the finalé being the world premiere of Gwenyfar Rohler’s “Death Bed: The Bed that Bites,” which will run the last two weekends of the month.

After launching the live radio show of the Orson Welles-commentated “War of the Worlds” directed by Cole Marquis in week one, Stephen Raeburn led the helm of the locally written, humorous one-acts by Elaine Alexander as part of “A Frightfully Funny Night of Comedy.” This weekend is all about kids in “The Witch, the Troll, and the Hairy Man,” directed by local puppeteer mastery Gina Gambony.

“Steve always has been interested in having more programs for kids,” Gambony tells, “and we’ve talked about various possibilities.  When he had the absolutely insane idea to mount four different shows through October, it seemed like a good time to do it.”

“The Witch, the Troll and the Hairy Man” culls a collection of stories that will entertain big kids and small kids of all ages alike. Gambony, who is known for shadow puppetry, will bring to life “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” an African American Southern folk tale told in shadow. Gambony constructs her own puppets for every show she does.

“I follow the spirit of the puppet as it emerges from the materials,” she states. “I’m very happy with the characters that have emerged. [I’ve made] masks [that] are actually shadow character masks for ‘Wiley.’”

She’s pulling out a classic oldy but goody to tell the story/poem about a Tolkien troll. “The troll puppet is one I received a few years ago from the estate of a wonderful puppeteer from California,” Gambony explains.

She also will tell “Baba Yaga,” a tale out of Russia, using Italian marionettes and table-top style puppeteering. She created both especially for the production. She’ll also tell a story that Vernon and his friends wrote some years ago, called “The Meteric.”

“He told me this story about 10 years ago, and it is one of the most popular stories with everyone,” Gambony tells. “It is about a scary monster that eats everything in town, and the villagers have to sort out how to get rid of it.  This is told in straight storytelling mode with audience participation.  We also have a lovely old folk song called ‘The Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket.’”

The stories are not high on intensity when it comes to fear. Nor is there gore or dark, foreboding themes. “No Edgar Allen Poe in this production!” Gambony promises. A lot of silliness intertwines with wit and fortitude. Even the stories’ “bad guys” aren’t that bad.

“In ‘Baba Yaga,’ the witch is clearly the enemy, and a young girl has to save her baby brother from her clutches,” she explains. “In the ‘Old Woman’ song, the old woman is clearly a witch, but the children speaking to her just want to fly up to the moon with her.”

Helping Gambony will be other puppeteers. Three women and three teenagers will help fill out the show and its quite simple stage appeal. The show rests less on set design and more on the storytellers and the stories. “I am performing, but I am trying to be the director as much as possible,” Gambony says.

Local actress and theater director Kim Henry, actress and teacher Linda Wall and shadow operator Laura Smith round out the adults. The teens consist of Mimi Hicks, Emma Collins, and Zoe Collins, who will voice the characters and help out with the puppetry.

“For a show, I sway back and forth between how the puppet will be operated and how it will look, and I have to be careful to give equal measure to both,” Gambony says. “We’ve had a short time to put this together, so I’ve wanted the puppets to be simple to operate, but move in ways that express who they are.”

An artform of expression, puppetry helps free feelings, beliefs, insight, compassion, and a host of other characteristics for actors. Even though separted from the core of the actor, they’re a vessel of release.

“This is why they are so powerful in therapeutic work,” Gambony says. “We allow them a wider berth in their characteristics and yet, they are totally dependent on us. They can be weirder and more horrible and more heroic than humans. Puppets are not little people;  they are a race all their own but manifested through our human hands.  So we see things in them that are familiar but in a unique way.  I really think they are enchanted.”

“The Witch, the Troll and the Hairy Man” won’t just be an observing show, either. Gambony says kids and adults will be afforded the opportunity to interact with them.


The Witch, the Troll and the Hairy Man

Big Dawg’s Halloween Horror Festival
October 16-19, 7 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.,
3 p.m Sat.-Sun.
Tickets: $10
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.

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