"It's a Wonderful Life" is the story of a selfless wooden puppet, who must rediscover his self-worth with help from a wooden angel puppet while dealing with the stress of the demanding Mr. Potter, a red-headed woman in a papier-mâché mask. Well, that's the version audiences at Equinox Terrace will see Saturday, Dec. 22 at 6 p.m.
This original adaptation of the "Wonderful Life" radio play was created by and stars actors/puppeteers Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers of Pontine Theatre.
"It's a Wonderful Life," is most remembered as a 1946 film starring Jimmy Stewart, but what many might not realize is that a radio play was released the following year, also starring Stewart. This production is based on that play, which condenses the 130-minute film into 40 minutes.
"I love the movie, I adore the movie. And I had for years been wanting to do something with it," Mathews said. "(The radio play) had already found a way to streamline the story in a way that made it possible to bring it out to the community."
The play combines three different media: shadow puppets, bunraku-style puppets, and commedia dell'arte style.
Bunraku puppets are wooden manikins, operated by controls in the chest cavity.
"There's this real kind of natural movement of the torso," Mathews said. "They're much more naturalistic in their movement than a marionette."
Commedia dell'arte is an Italian form of theatre that dates back to ancient Rome in which the actors wear masks with exaggerated features often corresponding to a set of visual cues to help the audience understand the character's temperament and role within the play.
To learn commedia dell'arte, Mathews studied under Etienne Decroux, a French actor known for teaching the legendary mime Marcelle Marceau.
The entire set, the puppets and the masks are made by Mathews and Gathers.
While the play has several characters, Mathews and Gathers are the only actors. Each of them switch from using the bunraku puppets to wearing masks to take on the different roles. Mathews' favorite character to play is the sinister Mr. Potter.
"I get to play Potter, who is the bad guy. It's just wonderful playing bad people. You can just go all out," Mathews said. "It's delighting in making the audience hiss at the stage."
Pontine Theatre is located at the West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth, N.H., but the theatre travels across New England to bring their 50-some-odd productions to theatre fans of all ages.
"(Recently,) we have become more interested in serving the needs of senior audiences we always do outreach to those communities," Mathews said. "It doesn't matter how old you are, puppets are magic. They're inanimate objects that become animated. Their expressions don't change, yet the audience projects expressions on their faces ... There's something so charming about puppetry."
Ann Bouza, executive director of Equinox Terrace, explained what ignited her interest in Pontine Theatre.
"Pontine Theatre sparked our interest because their performances are really different; it's not a typical puppet show," Bouza, said. "At Equinox Terrace we've found that the residents love to see things that are out of the ordinary, so we look to provide vibrant and interesting experiences for them There's a very important link between staying engaged and creative expression that impacts the quality of life. Music and the arts have a profound effect on the senses, making it essential to plan cultural, musical, and artistic events for the residents. This performance will be a way for them to engage their senses and socialize with their peers and other generations, which is why we opened it to the public."
Pontine's work tends to focus on the area adapting and performing works from the New England area, or works that have a special significance in the area.
"We like to do things that have that kind of connection,"
They have adapted works by local lesser known authors, as well as bigger names such as Ogden Nash and E.E. Cummings. They are currently preparing a show about the writings of the transcendentalists in New England.