The idea of turning Anne Frank's diary into a puppet show for adults sounds at first blush like someone's idea of a bad joke.
After all, her story is a classic. Her diary has sold more than 30 million copies in 50 languages, making it the most popular secular book in history. The warren of secret rooms in Amsterdam where the Frank family and four others hid from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944 is one of the most frequently visited places in the world. (Last year it had almost 1 million visitors.) A 1955 play based on the diary has been endlessly produced, challenged and updated.
But Bobby Box, the creator of Anne Frank: Within & Without believed that puppets could bring new depth and perspective to the wartime memoir. Theatergoers apparently agree. Box's new version, which opened last week at the Center for Puppetry has been playing to sold-out crowds. The show has been so successful that the center is considering touring the production.
"Puppetry has had a bad rap," said Jon Ludwig, associate artistic director of the center, which has collaborated with the Muppets' creator Jim Henson and with Julie Taymor, who directed The Lion King on Broadway. "We always think it's only for children and that it's like watching a bad birthday party clown. And you think, `How are they going to do something serious like Anne Frank or Shakespeare with puppets?"'
But puppets have long been used to tell serious stories. When the Puritans controlled England in 1642, they locked playhouses to prevent the spread of subversive material. For the next 18 years, the only theater in England was a traveling puppet show in which the workaday everyman Punch took swings with a wooden club at Mother England's stand-in, Judy.
More recently, puppets have found a political voice in productions like the acidly satirical movie Team America: World Police and the ribald Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q. But part of the success of these works was their tongue-in-cheek execution. A story with a backdrop like the Holocaust could scarcely be approached so lightly.
Box tackles his subject by having two actresses manipulate the doll-like puppets, which look like pose-able mannequins. The actresses, pin-curled and identically costumed in prim knee-length gray wool skirts, white blouses, gray cardigans and Mary Janes, are both introduced to the audience as Anne. Sometimes they seem to be personifications of Anne's memory or different aspects of her personality. Sometimes they seem like ghostly grown-up versions of an Anne Frank who has been allowed, in death, to age and return to tell her story.
The two performers move the puppets in and around a giant cutaway dollhouse, an exact replica of the annex rooms where Anne and her family hid. Watching grown women play with dolls this way turns out to be surpri-singly macabre.
There are examples of the tender-turned-terrible throughout the show, including a cradle that later becomes the cattle car carrying the residents of the annex to their deaths.
It was Box's intention, he said, to take "the feelings that we have toward certain objects and plug those objects into a place where they're not supposed to go and see what happens."
The somber mood is also created by several impressionistic moments, particularly dream sequences in which Anne puppets (of different sizes) ice-skate or are rocked to sleep in the branches of a chestnut tree.