ARCHIVE: The Man Behind That Curtain

Paper Moon

Master puppeteer Jim Racioppi, pictured with his Paper Moon Puppet Theatre team at their custom-built stage in Atlantic Highlands. Left to right: Hal Holst, Tyler Mizglewski, Racioppi, Gary Burke, John McAllister. (Photo by Diana Moore)

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit December 28, 2009)

It’s one of the most sought-after weekly happenings on the local landscape; a long-running attraction that belongs exclusively to Monmouth County. It’s an endeavor that pools the skills of a dedicated team at the top of their collective game, mentored and managed by by an artist whose devotion to his calling is absolute. And, unless you’re a toddler or someone who’s been put in charge of entertaining a party of young kids, it’s likely to have completely bypassed your radar.

Now in its 14th consecutive year of presenting original weekly shows to a local audience on the cusp of a second generation, Paper Moon Puppet Theatre is a genuine alternative to the hyperstimulating sugar-rush of modern kid-skewed media; a thing of real artistry that stands as testament to the vision of the man who pulls the strings — master puppeteer and designer Jim Racioppi.

Every Saturday afternoon at First Avenue Playhouse, the tables and chairs are cleared from the floor and the space readied for a respectably-sized house of kids and parents — an audience that’s set up to face away from the raised stage where the Atlantic Highlands storefront theatre hosts its year-round slate of community productions — with all eyes aimed at the opposite end of the room. There behind the red curtain is a detailed miniature proscenium stage and a busy back area, built to order for the Paper Moon team and a hand-picked (or, in this case, hand-made) cast of characters.

On a recent weekend, Racioppi and a four-man crew of puppeteers and assistants (Gary BurkeHal HolstJohn McAllister and Tyler Mizglewski) held an enthusiastic audience entranced with their latest original production — a strings-attached version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker that’s been added to the Paper Moon repertoire for the first time this year. Like the dozens of previous productions that Racioppi has mounted for schools, camps and children’s stages, it’s a show that’s scripted, designed and built from scratch — every character, every prop or stick of scenery — by Racioppi and company. Unlike most every past production, however, The Nutcracker is performed without dialogue; the classic themes serving as accompaniment to a story conveyed through pantomime and surprisingly intricate puppet-dance.

“It’s a challenging show to perform, and a more sophisticated presentation than usual,” says Racioppi of the pas-de-dolls. “But the kids have been terrific, paying attention throughout — it’s their parents that won’t keep quiet sometimes!”

Here in the middle of the school holiday break, young patrons of the arts and their ‘rents have two more opportunities to catch Paper Moon’s Nutcracker at First Avenue — this Saturday, January 2 at 2pm, as well as a rare and special Tuesday morning performance on December 29. It’s a busy week that also finds the team performing down in Ocean City on Thursday — and, on Wednesday afternoon, Racioppi visits the Avice Noblett Children’s Room at the Red Bank Public Library for a rare hand-puppet performance of The Three Little Lambs, introduced with an appearance by a couple of centuries-spanning icons of popular culture, Punch and Judy.

“Punch and Judy are going to be limited to an introductory role,” Racioppi says of the knockabout characters whose influence has touched everyone from the Three Stooges and Spy vs Spy, to Itchy And Scratchy and half the cast of The Warriors. “They won’t let you do an actual Punch and Judy show — too violent.”

For the most part, the full productions that Racioppi prepares for his weekly gig at First Avenue (as well as a monthly Sunday performance at Center Players in Freehold) are gentle transcriptions of familiar fairy tales or classic children’s literature; delivered without the ironic attitude that infects most latter-day kiddie krap — an approach that respects the timeless strengths of the source material, and allows a certain sense of wonder to shine through. After just a few minutes spent immersed in a Paper Moon show, all sense of relative scale tends to melt away — the figures become life-size actors on a full-size stage, and it often takes a post-show tour of the backstage to jar you back to some semblance of objective reality.

It’s not the only illusion that’s dispelled when you take a closer look at the Paper Moon operation. For instance, while it might make sense that Racioppi would construct certain all-purpose figures who would then be dressed in different costumes for the various shows, the puppet master maintains that every character be crafted to the specific needs of its show — illustrating his point with The Nutcracker’s Clara and the unique balletic plie movements required of the marionette.

Also surprising is the fact that Racioppi and his fellow puppeteers don’t concentrate upon an assigned set of characters; with one guy sometimes handing off a character to another guy in the middle of a scene, while the first guy quickly fetches a prop or prepares a new puppet for its entrance. Consequently, every puppet performer is required to learn every part of every show.

Racioppi, who works on his creations at his home in Belford (having relo’d with McAllister to the Bayshore burg from artistically stimulating but “way noisier” Asbury Park) has also been afforded the opportunity by First Avenue executive producer Joe Bagnole to direct several of the playhouse’s live-actor offerings, some of them (such as Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes) existing at a real remove from the realm of children’s theater. In addition, he’s directed several of the original comedies scripted by resident playwright Joe Simonelli, including Heaven Help Me and this year’s well-received holiday show A Christmas Tail — which, despite its “charming as hell” central device of a talking cat, did not require the services of a talking cat puppet.

It’s a natural transition for a man whose interest in the performing arts was spurred by his work with puppets — and whose interest in those puppets came about because he “loved figures and dolls, but wasn’t allowed to play with them — you couldn’t touch ‘em or you’d be ostracized.”

“I was an adult by the time that ‘guy dolls’ like GI Joe came out,” says Racioppi, who found that “working with puppets, with figures that moved and functioned as they did, made it acceptable for me to pursue my interest.”

While being the all-controlling puller of strings has its advantages, however, Racioppi stresses that it’s an art form that relies, as so many others do, upon the input of the beholder.

“The kids give you back so much more than you can ever give them,” the puppeteer says in praise of his loyal audience. “In a way, they shape the performance — and they make it possible for me to wake up every morning loving what I do.”

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