Manual Criticism

by Noel Sloboda

Francis always took reviews hard. So when the local arts journal, Ovations, complained that his puppetry company, “Without Strings,” had become “rather staid, rather static, presenting work that was more slight than sleight of hand,” it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the puppet master soon after announced changes were coming. Still, the other members of the company did not know what to make of the direction in which Francis wanted to take their productions.

Trained by Old World masters, Francis had skills with mannequins none of the others had even dreamt possible before they saw him perform. The leader of “Without Strings” specialized in quadrupeds, from cows to dragons, wolverines to unicorns: creatures difficult for any but the most talented to animate. At his touch, a menagerie would trot, canter, and gallop across the stage. But the spectacles he produced went far beyond the work of other masters. In the hands of Francis, coyotes Cajun waltzed and raccoons Muay Thai kick-boxed. (He’d even been rumored to have performed a few after-hours shows during which arachnids coupled furiously.)

When the company assembled to learn about their new direction, a new addition to Francis’s bestiary was uniformly anticipated. But nobody expected Francis to unveil a giant left hand. Five feet long from its hirsute wrist to its sharp, yellow fingernails, the puppet was crafted with such singular attention to detail that it seemed the knuckles might crack if pressure was applied to them.

Francis insisted not only that the hand be worked into all of the company’s productions, but that it would also replace his other creatures. It wasn’t immediately clear to the other members of “Without Strings” how audiences would receive the hand, but they begrudgingly consented to Francis’s plan. The tale of Jack and the Beanstalk would now feature as its villain The Fearsome Five Fingers, a fist that lorded over the land of Sky; Hansel and Gretel, lost in The Deep, Dark Woods, would meet a terrible thumb with a hankering for pinching children; Sir George would joust with stained, jagged fingernails with old onion skins under them.

When word got out that “Without Strings” was presenting new material, its audiences—which, it must be confessed, had begun to dwindle—suddenly increased. And after a few weeks, the crowds attracted the interest of the critic for Ovations, the very same one who had so shaken up Francis. The critic visited the company one evening, in order to reassess its merits in light of the dramatic changes that were generating such buzz on the street.

Begrudgingly, the critic conceded the craft of the hand’s operator; Francis’s performance was called “a ribald but precise and exacting display of dexterity, unlike anything seen before” by “Without Strings.” Yet the reviewer wondered if there wasn’t something “slightly dishonest, just ever so slightly, about an art form calling for the manipulation of living hands to create the illusion of a living hand.”

As Francis studied the review the next morning, his face burned. He immediately called another meeting of his troupe. He promised his fellows another new innovation, one that would be revealed that very night, something sure to win over the critic, whom he’d personally invited back to the show.

When the curtain went up that evening on a variation of Red Riding Hood in which The Big Bad Wolf was to become The Humungous Hairy Hand, everyone was taken aback—including the other puppeteers—when Francis’s puppet hand emerged from the wings wrapped in black, glittering armor with foot-long spikes on its knuckles. The Humungous Hairy Hand that the company had planned to feature in this tale had become The Great Grim Gauntlet.

At first, it was fairly interesting to see Francis work the metal glove as it scraped and clanked through the trails of the forest, attempting to crush young Red. As the show progressed, however, the novelty began to dissipate. By the time Red drew close to her grandmother’s house, several repeat patrons were muttering that the armor concealed the far more expressive hand from view. By the time Red confronted Grandmother (really The Great Grim Gauntlet, who had who had pinched the harridan to death, then donned her wardrobe), a couple people had fallen asleep. And almost everyone else—including the critic from Ovations—was eying the clock, to see just how much time remained in the show.

Then suddenly everyone sat up when, in a flurry of plaid and unkempt facial hair, The Woodsman burst through the door of Grandmother’s cottage. The Great Grim Gauntlet, about to squeeze Red to death, jumped out of bed and threw off not just its disguise but its casing. The black armored glove flew into the air, revealing the familiar hand underneath. The Woodsman paused, as though stunned by the nakedness of the hand, which proceeded to catch the glove and turn it inside out, revealing a white liner underneath. The hand then flipped the liner upward, so that it soared almost to the rafters before dropping right onto the hand. Up again went the liner. Only this time the hand it had covered had disappeared. The audience was on its feet, cheering by the time the empty white liner descended, draping gently over Red’s head, like a bridal veil, as she moved to embrace her hero, The Woodsman.

The review in Ovations the next day called the performance “close to perfect.” The critic raved that nothing could top what he had witnessed “Without Strings” do the night before. In fact, he noted, the company’s shows were now so good that it naturally followed they must soon fall off: after last night, “Without Strings” had “nowhere to go but down.” The critic vowed he would return to the theatre that very evening, and every evening hence, in order to mark the company’s fall. He wanted to be there to ensure that everyone who cared about the arts was apprised of the imminent decline of “Without Strings.”

In spite of its unfavorable intimations, the Ovations write-up intrigued enough people to fill the house the next night. Before a full-capacity crowd, Francis brought forth the familiar hand to the expectant patrons, all waiting for something to go wrong. They bounced in their seats with anticipation. Several licked their lips, as though preparing to suck the enormous fingertips. Yet those who had seen the hand before noted, as soon as it started to claw its way across the stage, that something was different about it. The hand wasn’t costumed, but naked, and it wasn’t clear what its role was, or even what story was being told. Neither scenery nor other puppets appeared on the stage to accompany it. The hand moved to the edge of the thrust, then stopped, falling lifeless before the audience. And then Francis stepped into view from stage left.

The puppet master silently surveyed the expectant faces, studying the white-knuckled fists clutching armrests and the knees bouncing up and down. Everyone waited for him to act. As he looked out over the house, Francis paused only for a moment when his eyes met those of the critic from Ovations.

Without a word, Francis dropped to the floor, his face contorting as his jaw expanded; first one finger, then another, emerged from his mouth, until finally a whole right hand had appeared. It didn’t linger over the now inanimate shell of Francis, but scuttled toward the fallen hand puppet. The new hand paused before its limp mate for just a moment. Then, ever so gently, the hand turned the mirror image of itself over, so that its palm was toward the ceiling. It began to rise and fall upon the limp, imitation open hand, clapping in a soft, steady rhythm. Unable to move, the audience sat stunned. Everyone just listened to the unnatural but insistently regular clapping—everyone except for the critic from Ovations, who smirked as he began to scribble furiously in his notebook.

NOEL SLOBODA lives in Pennsylvania, where he serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival. He is the author of the poetry collection Shell Games (sunnyoutside, 2008).

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