Marionette matinees come to downtown

It’s a warm and lazy Friday afternoon as Brian Hutton and Tammy Sitar broach the topic of breast augmentation for marionettes.

“Once I’ve gone to work on her, she’ll have some noticeable wiggle,” Sitar said.

The marionette under discussion is seated in an eight-inch high black leather armchair in the center of Buzz Schwall’s living room. A piece of unfinished wood cut in the shape of a guitar is hanging strapped to her shoulders with a piece of twine. Sporting a head of auburn hair and a silky white dress, the marionette was originally conceived as Donna Elvira, the heroine of the Mozart opera “Don Giovanni.” In a few weeks’ time, however, she is to debut in the role of Charo, the buxom flamenco guitarist who so often graced the set of “Love Boat” and still makes appearances on today’s “Hollywood Squares.”

As Hutton and Sitar discuss the manufacture of a blond wig for the Elvira marionette, puppeteer Colin Brown experiments with manipulating the threaded rod which controls Elvira’s hands. If he holds it out at just the right angle, he can make her wrist flex and rotate like that of an actual guitarist. Making flexible wrists and ankles are just two of the techniques puppet-maker Schwall has taught himself, since he made his first marionette for a workshop in Prague in 2001.

The Charo routine will be performed in Peratrovich Park, at Fourth Avenue and E Street, as the second of a series of marionette shows commissioned by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership as part of their Downtown Summer in the City project. The Buzz-O-Plex performers, who have also performed shows at Side Street Espresso, The Alley and the Discovery Theater at the Center for Performing Arts, are experimenting in a new style for the shows in the park.

“Up until now we’ve pretty much used prerecorded stuff,” Hutton said. “For the park pieces we’re doing a talk-show format. It has a nice, loose feel and we get some good mileage improvising dialogue.”

Sitar said this can be more of a challenge.

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“You have to focus on being clever with your voice and making the puppet move at the same time,” Sitar said.

At a Friday rehearsal, just over a week before the next biweekly performance, the ensemble discusses the same sorts of topics that come up at the writing sessions for any sitcom or TV variety show: how much time to allow a particular joke, whether a scene is becoming too static, and how to gear the material to make it interesting for both children and adults.

But the atmosphere has little of the high-stress conditions of network television. There’s a sense of relaxed time. Troupe members will wander into the kitchen and smoke a cigarette as they mull over their ideas. While performer Catherine Shenk reviews a videotaped scene from Disney’s “Snow White,” which she plans to parody, Schwall wanders over to his computer and searches online for recordings of flamenco guitar.

It was a roundabout course of events that led Schwall into puppetry. In 2000, he was working as the master carpenter for the Anchorage Opera when he began to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.

“I realized that I’d have to give up the sort of heavy work I was doing,” Schwall said. “I had to find something else.”

In 2001, he took a trip to Prague to attend a workshop that encompassed both the construction and operation of marionettes. Although he has worked on several styles of marionettes, he’s chiefly focused on a rod-style design, in which the marionette is suspended by a metal rod that runs from the top of the puppet’s head to the control handle, which the puppeteer manipulates.

“It’s not as fluid as a marionette worked only by strings.” Schwall said. “On the other hand, you don’t have to worry as much about everything getting tangled up.”

Schwall compensates for the stiffness of the marionettes by making the torsos out of a stack of lime-wood “ribs” connected only by leather straps. This allows for the wiggling hips of the Charo puppets as well as the subtle, expressive movements of Schwall’s favorite work: the grey-lipped harlequin puppet with huge, sad green eyes that played the part of Canio in Schwall’s production of “Pagliacci.”

“It’s just in the last year and a half that I’ve been making marionettes that justify the first two years or so of frustration,” Schwall said. “The Canio puppet is the first one that you can look at and feel his heart. . . . When I did the ‘Pagliacci’ piece, it was the first time I really enjoyed it. The puppeteer is focused on the puppet and the audience is, too. A relationship is formed through the puppet. When it works, everyone can take an extra step, get outside themselves.”

The Buzz-O-Plex show “Marionettes in the Park” plays every other Saturday from 2-3 p.m. at Peratrovich Park at Fourth Avenue and E Street. Listings can be found at