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The Daily Tar Heel

Puppets at play

Puppetry artist and local band craft a new reality together

Telling a story can happen in a myriad of different ways. For Bombadil, storytelling usually involves creating a unique world through quirky yet contemplative musical narratives, where two lovers are both cats or somebody is coming to terms with a lonely caterpillar inside of them.

But now Bombadil’s musical imagination is coming to life with the theatrical help of Duke professor and set designer Torry Bend.

In a rare and unforgettable three-day event, the Durham-based folk rock band will perform live as the music for Bend’s play “Love’s Infrastructure” at PSI Theater in Durham this weekend.
However, Bombadil will be the only visible humans performing on stage.

The rest of “Love’s Infrastructure” will be acted out with the help of puppets. These string-tied subjects will have puppeteers powering their motions, while Bombadil sets the tone with bittersweet and ambitious melodies.

Puppets may be a strange choice for most bands to accompany onstage, but bassist and vocalist Daniel Michalak says it may be foreign, but makes sense.

“Our music does tell stories, which makes it easier to attach to other art forms that tells stories also,” he said.

James Philips, the band’s drummer and vocalist, said it is exciting to perform the band’s songs in a different context.

“In a way, this is a little more fun than collaborating with musicians because this is a whole new thing I didn’t know anything about,” Philips said.

Michalek said the biggest difference has been giving and receiving cues from the puppeteers, whereas normally the band only has to worry about each other.

“We are just a trio, we can play as long as we want, or talk for ten minutes if we want,” he said. “But this has got to be fifteen people depending on to know when to change this scene or drop this puppet.”

While Bombadil sets the tone in “Love’s Infrastructure,” the band agrees that the play is the product of Bend’s direction. Bend created the play’s story and helped make the puppets and model sets that are used. But she says the story and the music are two sides of Love’s Infrastructure that balance on each other.

“In general we don’t use the lyrics of the songs to specifically depict what is happening on stage. Instead we use the tone of the songs and the energy of the songs and the quality of the music,” she said.

One of the main characters is named Angeline after a song from Bombadil’s latest record Metrics of Affection, but most of the songs will either be older tunes from the band requested by Bend or new songs.

Meanwhile, Bend’s story revolves around an architect engineer who lives in a world without a lot of color or creativity. But he soon meets a woman working in a toll booth who breaks his mundane norm by building captivating models of cityscapes out of recycled materials.

“He begins to give her objects that he finds in the world for her to build these models with, and it becomes about their connection and layers of reality,” Bend said.

“What our constructed reality feels like versus what our actual reality feels like and how we can change our perspectives of reality.”

Bend said she became enchanted with puppetry after taking a class at the California Institute of the Arts. It was there she realized the art’s potential as both an obvious and mysterious medium.

“We know that there is a hand inside of this puppet or we know that it’s just letters on string tracking across the stage or they are just paintings moving on and off stage,” she said.

“But despite the fact we all have this very clear understanding of the mechanics of what is going on, the whole audience is completely in awe of what seems unbelievably unreal, vivid and magical and almost beyond possibility all at the same time.”

The same sensation of a clear accessibility juxtaposed with delicate and mysterious introspection can be said of Bombadil’s storytelling.

At first, Bombadil’s simplistic wit and charm is admirable and easygoing, but under the surface, holds stories that range from unicycles to a charming farming girl being buried alive. Bend said both puppets and indie pop are allowed to have a dark side.

“One minute you might be feeling magical and fun and then the next minute you’re like, ‘Oh, there is a darker side to this,’” she said. “There is an uncertainty that goes to a place that isn’t all sunflowers and sunbeams kind of things.”

Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances, picked up on the harmony between the two art forms.

A year ago he encouraged the band and Bend to get together and collaborate on the project he now refers to as the “indie-pop puppet opera.”

“It is the kind of ambitious work that really needs to be supported around here locally. It’s work that is almost completely locally made and my hunch is that it will deliver at a very high level,” Greenwald said.

“I love the music that Bombadil makes and have always thought that the music could benefit from some kind of visual component. It is evocative in a way that wants to have some visual accompaniment.”

Just as the story’s main character is revealed to the layering views of reality, Bombadil and Bend seek to enlighten audiences with their perspectives of a joyful and intimate world.

While audiences are usually presented with performances masked in 3-D or CGI, Bend says “Love’s Infrastructure” is something different — it’s something real.

“We assume that things have been modified when you go into a movie and become more and more skeptical of what we are seeing, ” she said.

“But to actually have something very real in front of you where you do know exactly what is going on is a unique experience.”

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