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The grotesque death of 11 puppets

It’s easy to kill a puppet.After all, they’re not alive to begin with.But when Eric Bass smothers and beheads tiny, inanimate figures…

It’s easy to kill a puppet.

After all, they’re not alive to begin with.

But when Eric Bass smothers and beheads tiny, inanimate figures in Richard 3.5, the audience still gasps in horror.

“Actors can never really die and puppets can never really live,” said Bass, over a tea at Baked on Thursday morning.

“So bringing puppets to life and then killing them begs all the questions that are interesting to the art form — in what way does the audience bring the puppet to life, and what happens to the audience when the puppets are beheaded and suffocated?”

A two-man ragtime cabaret revolving around murder, Richard 3.5 is a black comedy featuring puppets and candles.

It’s based on Shakespeare’s Richard III.

 “We reduced it to 11 murders and seven songs we made from the Shakespeare text,” said Bass.

“The murders are the fun part,” he added.

“But as writers, it’s interesting to look at what’s behind all that — the lust for power, the deceit.”

It’s Richard 3.5 because it’s an updated version, he added with a laugh.

With puppets, it’s more about images, than text. And design is a big part of Richard 3.5, said Bass.

The puppets appear to be made out of candle wax, and as each puppet meets its bitter end, one of the giant candles gracing the stage flickers out.

“So there’s a metaphorical element to the design — for every life that’s lost, the world does get a little darker,” he said.

“And those that perpetrate it make the world darker for themselves too.”

So it’s not surprising that, at the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king is crying for more light.

The piece is a collaberation with Bass’s longtime friend Bob Berky, who’s a physical comedian, theatrical clown, playwright and actor.

It’s his first time working with puppets, said Bass.

“But he’s a really exceptional mime, and those skills make him a natural puppeteer.”

Bass started studying theatre in high school, but didn’t meet his first puppet until 1970s New York City.

“I’d started doing street theatre after university and a lot of the performers had turned from realistic theatre to mime, clown, juggling and puppetry,” he said.

Doing some Punch and Judy shows and some African folk tales, Bass started dabbling in puppets.

And that was it.

“A friend said, ‘You’re the only person I know who seems to know exactly what he wants to do,’” said Bass.

“And I was only 23.”

Now, almost 40 years later, Bass is still creating papermache, neoprene and wood figures who live their tiny lives on stage, finding love, battling loss, struggling with their humanity and perishing.

“Puppets are a very pure form of theatre,” said Bass.

“What’s ultimately theatrical is when the audience believes in the life of something they know is only artifice.

“Puppets can never be naturalistic. But they can seem to live and breath.”

Bass isn’t concerned with what his works leave the audience thinking.

“But I am interested in what images stay — what resonates with them,” he said.

“Good comedy is always based on pain and discomfort — so it should never be separated from things that concern us as individuals and as members of society.”

After meeting his wife, the pair started Sandglass Theatre in Germany, where she is from. That was is 1982.

Four years later, they moved the company to Vermont.

“I was just looking for the state with the fewest audience members, the lowest ticket prices and the smallest arts council,” said Bass with a laugh.

In its creations, Sandglass combines puppets with striking visual imagery.

It also holds workshops and hosts a bi-annual international puppet festival that saw acts from Taiwan, Bulgaria, Brazil, Sweden and Quebec this summer.

Bass just flew from Australia to Whitehorse — he was teaching puppetry to students at the Victoria College of Art in Melbourne.

“I’ve gone from the beginnings of summer to the streets of Whitehorse in 10 days,” he said.

Back in Vermont, Bass’s puppet creations rest in packing cases in his shed. There are also a lot in exhibits, he said.

“What stays with the puppeteer is not so much the puppet, as the puppet’s character,” said Bass.

Puppets are like musical instruments, he added.

“You have to learn how to play them, and each puppet is a little bit different.”

Richard 3.5 is at the Guild December 17 through 20. Shows are at 8 p.m., except for the 20th, which is a 2 p.m. matinee.

Tickets are available at the Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground.

Bass is also workshopping a companion piece to Dirty Life (which involves a giant penis puppet) with the Yukon’s Sour Brides Theatre.

And he’s offering a puppet workshop on Saturday, December 13, from noon to 6 p.m. in the Arts Centre production room — all are welcome. It costs $65.

Contact Genesee Keevil at