The Center for Puppetry Arts is marketing DVDs of 10 of its productions, beginning with the family shows Beauty and the Beast, Dinosaurs and American Tall Tales ($19.95 each, or three for $45.95). The Center ultimately hopes to get the discs, collectively called "Puppets At Play," in retail stores, but they're currently available at the center's gift shop and at www.puppet.org.
Atlanta's Creative Digital Group slickly produced the discs and filmed the live performances with three cameras, so there's seldom that watching-from-the-back-row feeling you often get with live theater recordings. But shows that use the "Czech Black" puppetry style, with dark-garbed puppeteers operating in the shadows, present a problem. The approach invariably puts a lot of darkness on the TV screen: Dinosaurs' delicate dance of luminescent jellyfish becomes disappointingly murky. Puppets pack more visual punch against well-lit, distinct backgrounds, such as the discs' comedic backstage introductions (clearly inspired by "The Muppet Show").
The Center currently has no plans to market any of its ingenious shows for mature audiences (although the upcoming Tales From Edgar Allen Poe aims for viewers 12 and up). But Beauty and the Beast showcases the Center's crazy-quilt creativity in surprisingly highbrow fashion. The fairy tale's big-city reinterpretation builds most of the characters and props from "found objects." Beauty, for instance, has a mop handle for a head, an umbrella for a skirt and a blouse off a clothesline for arms and torso. (The concept "clicks" when you recall that Beast's magic spell involves common objects coming to life, like the singing candlestick in the Disney version.) Beauty provides a fine example of the Center's musical playfulness, like the talking wrench and sledgehammer that break into a 1950s-style doo-wop song.
Each disc also features a "how-we-do-it" segment and a five-minute retrospective on the Center, with interviewees ranging from Associate Artistic Director Jon Ludwig to Brer Rabbit. I eagerly await the discs of Ludwig's brilliant shows The Body Detective and The Plant Doctors, which promise to offer edutainment -- at its most edutaining.