by Molly Gilmore
String and Shadow Puppet Theater’s Ship of Fools, opening July 7 at Callipe Farm in West Olympia, combines clowning, movement, music, puppets and masks to tell the story of a journey between the world of the living and the underworld. If you don’t know String and Shadow, a puppet show might sound like kids’ stuff, and the theme, inspired by the mythological River Styx, might sound awfully serious.
Neither is the case. “Comedy and tragedy are just a second apart from each other,” said String and Shadow’s Donald Palardy III, who’s playing one of the fools. “We want people to come and to laugh. That is the goal. It’s like Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes is for kids, but there’s a lot of adult humor, sometimes peeking out of the surface and sometimes just under the surface.”
The company’s aesthetic is “slapstick comedy with dreamy poetic moments,” said Luz Gaxiola, a trained clown playing a second fool. Gaxiola played a bard on a quest in the company’s 2022 Far Away and Hard to Find. “I love working with String and Shadow,” she said. “Everyone in the cast brings their own skills and perspectives to the collaborative process. Some people have more of a dance background, or music, or theater, or clowning, and it’s been a joy to combine it all together to create this show.”
Ship of Fools definitely fits within that aesthetic. Gaxiola, Palardy and fellow fool Elizabeth Lord, another String and Shadow regular, function in many ways as a unit as they navigate an enormous ship within a fantastical world. Among the creatures they encounter are a ghostly humpback whale and hermit crabs whose shells are made up of pieces of houses.
What’s new this time is that the story is told almost completely without words. “We tell the story with actions and puppets, and that’s fantastic,” Lord said. “It makes the puppets central to the storytelling.”
“Luz, Donald and I were talking about what we could do that would feel different and challenging and push us in a different direction,” said Emily McHugh, String and Shadow’s founder and chief puppet designer. “We all felt excited about finding a way to tell the story without using as many words.”
The fools, who took a clowning workshop together to prepare for the show, give the audience a connection to the show’s otherworldly setting, McHugh said. “The clown is the fool that we all are,” she said. “As the clowns move through this environment, we’re hoping that the audience feels emotionally connected to them.”
Clowning is new to Lord, a veteran storyteller, actor and improviser, but she realized at the workshop that she already had many of the necessary skills. “The instructor was teaching comedic timing, and I realize that I already have that,” she said. “Another thing he taught was looking at the audience. With clowning, there is no fourth wall. I hadn’t realized that clowning is like storytelling: Clowns are having a dialogue with the audience, even though they’re not exchanging words.
“Clowning is about humor, and it’s broad,” she added. “It’s not subtle. It’s about big facial expressions, big gestures, exaggerated motions. It’s a lot of fun to perform that way.”
The show’s cast also includes puppeteers McHugh, Kai Johnson, Carly Melchers, Eric Sanford and Kelsey Magnuson, some of whom also play non-puppet roles, and musicians Stella R.S., Razz Yoshioka and Eva Leach. McHugh, Palardy and Magnuson worked on puppets and sets, as did Jordanna Averett, Hannah Gorder and Joelle Montez.
Ship of Fools: A Giant Puppet Odyssey
6:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through July 31
Calliope Farm, 1335 Overhulse Rd. NW, Olympia
$20 donation suggested, with no turned away for lack of funds