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Puppets on a String 

A new theater company gets all up in the Tony Award winner Amadeus.

While a local theater company's staging of Peter Shaffer's Tony Award-winning classic Amadeus might not scream groundbreaking, consider that Wolfgang and company are puppets, and you begin to get the idea. Think of it, for a moment, as the revenge of John Cusack's lonely, misunderstood puppeteer in Being John Malkovich -- which for many served as a bizarre introduction to the art form.

In reality, puppets and their many facets and dimensions have crept into the local theater scene recently thanks to the unique vision of Leap Frog Theater Company co-founders Steve Zissis and Arthur Mintz, whose passion for puppets becomes three-dimensional this weekend in their major-presentation debut with Amadeus.

"Thematically, Amadeus asks for puppets to be in the play," Mintz says of a play noted for its explorations of human ambition, spiritual awareness, life and death set in the baroque excess of 18th-century Vienna. "You have Mozart being an instrument of God, and Salieri begging for that divine gift. As it's written, you have Salieri transforming himself in his quest, seen in the play in both his 73-year-old and 31-year-old [selves]. The puppets perfectly illustrate this transformation."

After Mintz picked up a copy of Amadeus' script -- he loved the Oscar-winning movie -- he and Zissis contemplated staging the show. But it wasn't until fate intervened at Barnes & Noble one night. While book hunting there, they consulted I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes that doesn't foretell the future so much as suggest what should be done with one's life.

"The I Ching told us to go for it," Zissis says with a laugh. "And we made the leap, and considering that we've never done something of this magnitude, it was definitely a leap of faith.

"We're getting so much personal satisfaction out of this," Zissis explains of what he admits is a steep learning curve. "You create questions that create answers. How do you do Amadeus with puppets? I don't know; let's find out. It's a real baptism by fire."

The two actors boast an impressive list of credits -- Zissis' resume includes Midnight in the Marigny and Love Sauce, while Mintz has appeared in Ballet of the Crickets and The Night Ocean. But the duo's work in puppetry also has graced local stages before. Last fall's Licking the Bowl benefited from the incorporation of puppets into multiple scenes, most notably in expressing the transformation of the protagonist from boy to man in its coming-of-age tale, with the more abstract use complementing what was overall a visually stunning piece. But it is in the last year that they have increased their efforts to better master the craft.

The road began in Tampa, Fla., in December, when Mintz saw The Diary of a Mad Man. The piece was led by Richard Termine, arguably the nation's leading puppeteer, whose work as a longtime associate of Jim Henson produced artistic and popular successes such as Labrynth, The Dark Crystal and Sesame Street, for which he won an Emmy in 1987. Mintz left the show alternately stunned and determined, and soon the two "somehow bullshitted a way to his phone number," and a meeting in New York was arranged.

Flattered and intrigued by their interest, Termine met with them over coffee in Greenwich Village in March. He directed the visiting New Orleanians to the Lincoln Arts Center's puppetry section of archived performances. The fact that Mintz and Zissis heeded his advice impressed Termine enough to continue the unsolicited relationship, including a trip to his studio later that weekend. Then, they met again three months later in Connecticut at the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Puppet Theater Conference, which Termine leads as director.

"I could see how passionate Arthur and Steve were," Termine says by phone from his New York home. "They came to the conference and made it work for them. Their timing, creativity and energy was quite exciting."

Termine visited New Orleans following the conference to lend his expertise for a long four days of rehearsals. He left impressed with a cast of great performers that will make the dialogue-driven Amadeus -- "an extraordinary choice" -- a success with puppets. "The passion and enthusiasm Arthur and Steve share," Termine says, "made the actors excited about the project and reinforced everyone's commitment to making it a success."

The cast includes former Big Easy Award Best Actor winner Mark Krasnoff (The Elephant Man) as Salieri. Kransoff's puppet was created with his hand protruding from its middle, symbolizing the character's inner turmoil that drives the play, a glowing detail of what puppets bring to the work. Ryan Reinike portrays Mozart.

The actors will stage the work behind a giant piece of Plexiglas within a massive rococo frame, perfect for Amadeus with its baroque style and representations of God, devils and angels. The stage was created by local Mardi Gras float designer Joe Barth, who also designed the puppets. Experimental, sure, but perhaps that's the point.

"Developing Amadeus has been a lot of trial and error," Zissis says. "That ends up being expensive, but it's worth it. The best moments in this play have come through pure discovery, often from mistakes we've recognized. And that's what we're aiming for -- discovery."

click to enlarge Fits like a glove: Ryan Reinike portrays the title character in Amadeus, which opens Friday at the Hellenic Cultural Center.
  • Fits like a glove: Ryan Reinike portrays the title character in Amadeus, which opens Friday at the Hellenic Cultural Center.
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