Phillip Huber, Master of Transformations

I was lucky to spend some time with Phillip Huber at the O’Neill last summer, when I did marionette construction with another master, Jim Rose. Phillip, with infinite patience, taught us how to move the puppets. I was the slow learner of the class. I spent hours in front of a mirror, trying to master walking, that most basic of motions, without much success—while other students perfected deep curtseys and dance steps. But my goal was never performance. I wanted to understand what string puppets are—from the inside.

We were free to choose any of Huber’s cast members, which hung from racks along the wall, waiting for the touch of life. Most were cabaret performers with exaggerated faces and gaudy show-clothes, but some were naturalistic and Taffy the spaniel can be mistaken for a living dog. I think string puppets inhabit a world that is a bit different from their hand or Bunraku cousins. Their connection to the human body of the puppeteer is less intimate, and the spectator is more inclined to marvel at the intricacy of their design and the amazing feats that they can perform—whether it’s Taffy begging uncannily like a real dog, or the trapeze artist who changes positions on the moving swing, now hanging from the legs, now from a single hand.

Here’s an example from “Suspended Animation”, a variety show that Huber often performs: the Diva, a raddled, smokey-voiced cabaret singer, doing “I’m going to love you like nobody loves you, come rain or come shine” while smoking a cigarette. Its end glows when she inhales, and she exhales smoke. As spectators, we love that trick—and Phillip’s puppets are unmatched in their technical virtuosity. But what sets him apart as an artist is the emotional power of the piece. Her sultry voice is interrupted by fits of coughing, and we all know what that means. Not a moment or gesture is wasted: she carries on, with great pathos and great dignity, to the end.

There are technical feats like the glowing cigarette and the smoke—and then there are the transformations. In the same cabaret show, Lisa begins as an old lady in a rocking chair on her porch and transforms before our eyes into a glittery, pant-suited sex queen singing ‘City Lights’.

Such transformations are the stock-in-trade of marionette theatre—but here is one that out-transforms anything I’ve ever seen: Mo Sho Long, the Chinese Magician. This is an amazing piece of string artistry, fully the equal of any of the European masters of the previous generation. Vaguely oriental music accompanies the piece, and we see Huber in black, moving beside the puppet, using short strings. The puppet’s face keeps changing, and then he raises the ornamental stiff front of his elaborate costume like a shield. Suddenly it becomes the stage for what appear to be a pair of diminutive hand puppets who are duking it out as hand puppets do—but they’re not hand puppets, they’re marionettes. Then a jewelled ball floats up from behind the same shield. It’s magically transformed into the face of the puppet—and when the shield drops, the magician has no face at all. And then the culminating, and truly miraculous transformation occurs: the puppet crumples to the floor, a mass of rich fabric and color—and a jewelled dragon emerges, to walk on four legs like a dog. The spectators applaud, as well they should.

Finally, here’s a promotional life-story by Huber himself, with lovely moments from a whole range of his shows (including TV work), along with a capsule voice-over career summary—how he began performing as a boy, and put himself through college with his shows; how he discovered the magic of what he calls “variety theatre”; some moments of the brilliant puppetry he did for the cult classic, Being John Malkovich; and what he calls the “basic innocence” that puppetry taps into.