Renowned puppet artist and OBIE winner Hanne Tierney has worked with abstraction for many years, pioneering a kind of "theater without actors." The use of actual human figures, even in the form of puppets, is new in her work. My Life in a Nutshell, her new creation at HERE Arts Center, continues the center's Dream Music Puppetry Program created by Basil Twist. It features very cool life-sized burlap marionettes, deftly quickened from the side of the stage by Ms. Tierney and two other string-pulling operators.
Jane Wang's darkly humorous incidental music (sawing an upright bass, plinking a toy piano), Hannah Wasileski's projections, and Ms. Tierney's measured narration are among an assortment of clever elements that set an evocative mood and tell a story of a thwarted love triangle fraught with and followed by various complications, including lots of death. Unfortunately the story unfolds ponderously and fails to grip. It feels as though two opposing forces are pulling the piece into a confused state: partially abstract, partially human, it is not fully anything. One waits to be engaged, but is only tickled with a succession of amusing visuals and softly humorous lines, and then it's over. I found my mind wandering a number of times, even though the show was just 45 minutes long.
Though the human characters get puppet representation, they are granted only letters for names, one of many abstract and abstract-tending ideas threading through the story (the concept of the "love triangle" gets new meaning here). Though the figure of Death speaks and has a distinct personality, he is played not by an anthropomorphic puppet but by two connected line segments, like a compass or the detached leg of a giant spider, and curiously, this makes him more interesting than the unremarkable human characters; we wait to see what his two legs will do, where they'll point, whom they'll arch over – it's vaguely horrific.
One of the marionette characters, D, is an experimental artist who performs works of Gertrude Stein accompanied by bouncing Slinky-like spirals which may or may not be imaginary; again, the abstractions seem to have more interesting personalities than the people. They make us want to observe them more closely, to understand what they mean or at least sense something of what drives them.
The vision that drives Hanne Tierney and her co-conspirators has numerous fascinating conceptual facets, but has here resulted in something only intermittently interesting, and ultimately unsatisfying.
My Life in a Nutshell runs Tues.-Sun. through Oct. 25. For more information visit www.here.org.