By Joseph Golfen
It’s not often that you see something truly unique. Most things in life feel familiar, more of a variation on a theme then an actual new experience. But the night Philip Huber and his marionette show performed at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater was like nothing I’d ever seen before. This soft-spoken master puppeteer has traveled the world showing off his amazing skills, making his wood and cloth characters come to life at the end off the strings he dangles from his fingers.
In addition to his one-man performances, Huber has worked on a number of film and stage productions, most notably as the head puppeteer for the amazing scenes in the movie Being John Malkovich. He’s traveled the world performing his act in Broadway productions, on the Tonight Show, for royalty in Europe and in grandiose settings such as the Casino de Monte-Carlo and the Lido in Paris.
“I’ve been doing puppets all my life,” says Huber, who speaks quietly and affectionately. “My mom bought me a puppet when I was just three years old because I was so shy. She thought it would help me express myself and I expressed myself right into a career.”
The show Huber performed on Saturday had no set other then a black stage with a black background, but it came to life when Huber climbed upon it and raised up the first performer of the night: a nimble trapeze artist named Louisa. The audience cheered in amazement as Huber swung the small puppet and trapeze back and forth, while Louisa flipped upside down and stood on her hands, seeming to come to life before our eyes.
But this was only the first act in Huber’s circus, which included a lederhosen-clad accordion player, a timid roller-skating panda and a voluptuous jazz singer.
“My act is a variety show and I did that on purpose so that it would have to be very visual,” says Huber. “I wanted the show to be universal, so that people everywhere could enjoy it and it wouldn’t be dependant upon words.”
Every marionette in the act was developed and hand-crafted by Huber himself, who says he gets most of his inspiration from music. Currently he is developing two new puppets, a Chinese magician and a punk rocker, which is an indication of the range of characters Huber concocts.
One of the most remarkable things about the show was Huber’s ability to pack surprises into each sketch, whether it was a scarecrow suddenly breaking into seven pieces during a ho-down or an opera singer using her stretchable neck to hit the high notes. Each character could do something remarkable, from a puppet tossing aside her whig and drab clothes to reveal a sparkling, red suit underneath, to a violinist plucking away at his instrument during the pizzicato measures of a concerto. All the while Huber danced and smiled along with his creations as if these amazing tricks were just coming naturally to him.
But Huber says each puppet takes countless hours of development and creation in order to get them to do the things he wants.
“The most difficult act is the contortionist, which was inspired by Cirque du Soleil,” he says with a faint smile. “It took four years to develop and is based directly on the work I did in Being John Malkovich.”
In the movie he had to design a puppet that could do a backwards summersault and a hand spring, which at the time he felt was impossible.
“But I found a way to do it and that’s where a lot of the ideas for this puppet came from,” he adds.
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The contortionist was a tiny golden figure that bent itself into seemingly impossible positions, twisted like a pretzel and standing on one hand, and had left the audience quietly awed.
“There’s not much new under the sun,” says Huber. “Most of the acts I do I’ve seen done in various ways by other great puppeteers. But with this contortionist I think I am truly unique. I don’t think anyone else does anything like it.”
That uniqueness showed through Huber’s entire lighthearted and amazing showcase. He has created something very few could ever hope to replicate: a performance brilliant in its complexity and stunning in its simple beauty.