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When Henry Met the Hudson—with Puppets: Arm-of-the-Seaby Ross Rice

It’s a bit muggy and buggy down by the water at the Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park in Saugerties for the 2009 Esopus Creek Puppet Suite. After a short presentation by Vanaver Caravan’s SummerDance on Tour—a celebration of the upcoming opening of the Poughkeepsie train bridge walkway titled “Walking On Air”—lights and sound are tweaked and re-arranged, musicians take their places to the side, and all attention goes to the sheets of green and blue fabric, softly billowing in the breeze, that constitute the staging area for the Saugerties-based Arm-of-the-Sea puppet troupe.

Music starts, voices intone, and suddenly the most amazing shapes emerge from the fabric. Birds and animals, ships and companies, celestial objects, and characters of all ages, shapes, and sizes, all rendered in a state of magical realism, vibrantly colored and skillfully animated. It takes mere seconds to become immersed in an imaginative rendering of the story of Henry Hudson’s first visit to the river that would come to bear his name, and how those who were already there (that is, here) responded to him . . . a 400 year-old story that, in a way, explained how we—the pre-dominantly white audience—came to be sitting here in this very park, watching a puppet show on the banks of the Esopus.

It’s literally an “arm of the sea” that reaches from the Atlantic, up the Hudson River, and into the tributary that meets Arm-of-the-Sea co-founder Patrick Wadden and me as we chat at the Saugerties lighthouse. Waterways have always had special meaning to Patrick, who grew up on the Mississippi River, near to the source in Minnesota. When visiting a friend on the Hudson, he found much about the region that attracted him.

Patrick moved to the area, involving himself with various environmental groups that were concerned with water issues, and became a chief mate on the sloop Clearwater—Pete Seeger’s floating educational laboratory, teaching awareness and conservation of the Hudson River estuary. But Patrick wanted to use other methods to impart the important message. “I’ve always had an interest in all the arts; visual theatre that involves music, sculpture, painting, movement and dance, poetry and acting.” Puppetry was something that could satisfy all possibilities, and collaborating with his life-partner Marlena Marallo—a talented designer, artist, sculptor, and painter—they had pretty much all the elements they needed in-house.

So they decided to put on a show—using large-scale puppets made from papier-mâché, wood, and hand-dyed fabrics—in tandem with a 1982 Clearwater riverside event. “It was an allegorical piece about fighting over-development and the end of this part of the world. It was also around the time that Reagan was putting Pershing missiles in Europe, so it was tied to disarmament issues.” Patrick chuckles at the memory. “It was more of a pageant than a theatre piece; we didn’t know much about what we were doing when we started. Still trying to figure it out, by the way.” And they had such a good time, they did it again. And again.

Thus was born Arm-of-the-Sea, which has been delighting audiences ten months out of twelve ever since. “We drew our name from the Hudson as an estuary, because it’s both very local and connected to the whole planet. We live in this area, and we decided rather than bounce around, we’re going to make shows that draw not just out of the river, but out of the life of this region. That was the impetus: work locally.” Patrick and Marlena originally kept the performances close to the area, working closely with Clearwater events, but eventually branched out into a ten-state area including New England, while keeping a focus on regionally resonant issues.

It’s become quite a streamlined operation, with a crew of three puppeteers and two musicians—all of whom are consummate multi-taskers. Carl Weldon has been on board as a self-avowed “puppet wrangler” for over a decade. While on tour in Montreal in 1997 with his one-man “human channel surfing” show, he got an urgent call from Patrick. “When I checked the voicemail, it was Patrick saying he had a medical emergency, having sliced a tendon. He gave me nine dates; I looked at what was a packed calendar, and every date fell on an empty day.” He took it as an omen not to be ignored. A cartoonist, unicyclist, stilts-walker, technical theater guy, voice-overs guy, and performer; he’s known for his “Dances With Werewolves” shows—horror prose juxtaposed with eerie Theremin (early synthesizer—think 60s horror movies and “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys).

Another go-to guy has been musician Dean Jones, who can be seen stage-side at Arm-of-the-Sea shows operating a keyboard, drum kit, trombone, and a variety of gadgets while supplying narration and occasional MC duties. As a member of area bands Soñando, Uncle Buckle, Dog On Fleas, and Big Sky Ensemble, Dean is surely a familiar face to music-lovers all over the region, and is essentially in charge of the sound of Arm-of-the-Sea. It’s quite possible he has an extra invisible pair of arms.

Since its inception, Arm-of-the-Sea has become an important local resource, touching on subject matter of interest to local residents. Their recent production of City That Drinks the Mountain Sky traces the path of fresh water from the Catskill Mountains to its destination in the taps of New York City, providing history of this controversial but necessary project in a digestible story form. Patrick feels sure he struck the right balance: “When we perform it for audiences in the Catskills, we sometimes hear: oh, you’re too sympathetic to the New York City point of view. When we perform it in NYC, we hear [the opposite]. So, I think we succeeded!”

When it was time to write Mutual Strangers: Henry Hudson & the River that Discovered Him—with impetus and funding supplied by the Quadricentennial Commission—Patrick wanted to steer clear of a dry historical rendering, especially one that emphasized the traditional “European discovery of savages” storyline. “I wanted something character driven, not just by the third person narrator. More from different points of view from human beings who only see certain parts of the picture.”

He drew from a combination of sources: the logbook of Hudson’s first mate Robert Juet, and the oral traditions of the Lenape and Mohican peoples who received the foreigners. These plus the known histories of Hudson and the Dutch East India Company show both sides of a cultural collision 400 years ago that helped birth a nation.

Patrick: “One of the things that keeps attracting me back to theatre is how you can juxtapose a number of points of view together. That’s what makes, in my opinion, a good reason to do it. You can show empathetically many points of view. I’m not interested in doing just polemics, like this is the only party line . . . It doesn’t mean we don’t have our own opinions. It just makes for a better piece—one that can connect with people of differing philosophies or walks of life.”

The script, which also imagines the viewpoint of children both on the ship and shore, had to be culled from almost twice the original ideas, and is now just over an hour, with a 45 minute version for elementary school-aged audiences. Native American songs incorporated into the piece—the Delaware Stick Dance and War Dance—were transcribed by musician/keyboardist Dennis Yerry from Library of Congress recordings, and were traditional tunes that would have been heard in the native villages in the 1600s. Patrick tells the story with compassion and balance: strangers can be both a threat and a blessing; some strangers become necessary friends. And it’s important to realize: we’re all strangers to somebody.

And what better way to tell the story than with one of the oldest, most universal ways to do so, using human magic in real time. Ultimately, as Patrick says, “What people take away from it is: it’s just a piece of cardboard, until it’s in the hands of a puppeteer. Then it’s animated, it comes to life. It’s larger than life . . . different than television.”

The Arm-of-the-Sea will be performing Mutual Strangers: Henry Hudson & the River That Discovered Him Sa/Su 9/26 & 27 at the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival at Cantine’s Field, Saugerties; Sa 10/3 as part of the “Walkway Over the Hudson” opening celebration at Waryas Waterfront Park, Poughkeepsie; Su 10/4 at Lloyd Waterfront Park, Highland; Sa 10/10 at the Newburgh Free Library, Newburgh,, 845.563.3614, 2 PM

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