Night Crawler

Puppet Regimes

Puppet Regimes
Under a pale sky flocked by billowy clouds tinged with deus ex machina sunlight, and nestled in the emerald toes of a small leafy hilltop, is the home of a plum-colored gremlin named Sam and a family of singing rabbits.

There's no doubt about it.

Snapping off the static of my car radio, I find myself bound in shimmering forest light and spongy quiet. Stepping out of the car, a rainbow-winged beetle careens into my ankle and drunkenly tumbles to the ground, sputtering angrily until it is able to take off again. Next door, a white-haired gnome of a man diligently focuses his attention on a pair of reddish 2-by-4s, but his hammer blows are swallowed by the leafy cover, and even at this close range, all I can hear is the rhythmic eer-rup of a nearby frog jamboree. Near the front door indicated on my map, an arching garden trellis rises out of the thick foliage next to a huge grinning Gleebot. The Gleebot is lilac in color with floppy, leathery ears and a face that is something akin to an apple-cheeked dinosaur-poodle with a cleft palate, but not exactly. It's cute, even at 6 feet tall. The front door, which is painted with climbing vines and broad leaves, in keeping with the neighborhood motif, opens on the slender, beaming face of Lee Armstrong, one-half of the partnership that is Images in Motion Media Inc. -- the cottage company that most recently created the marionettes for the motion picture Being John Malkovich, centered around a disillusioned yet delusional puppeteer played by John Cusak.

Lee Armstrong and a Being John Malkovich puppet (left).
Paul Trapani
Lee Armstrong and a Being John Malkovich puppet (left).

Armstrong delivers a piping welcome and bustles me, with birdlike energy, past framed pictures of Gleebots and other fancies, into a warm little kitchen dominated by a colorful movie poster for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Armstrong's husband cruises through, offering a laid-back handshake and a nod on his way to the bedroom, which, I am told, brims with musical instruments.

"He puts up with all this foolishness," says Armstrong, referring to puppetry and not yet to the journalists who will inevitably make the trek to her door in years to come. She bustles around the kitchen, offering plates of food in the gracious manner of one accustomed to feeding folks -- hot tea, pastries, crackers, brie, strawberries -- and relates the story of her career with the breezy casualness bred of good fortune and familial support.

Raised in Nova Scotia, Armstrong found herself at the Canadian employment agency at the age of 19, asking to be filed among those people looking for jobs in the arts. There was no such file, but, under her persistent behest, a folder was created and Armstrong's name included. The following day, a call came in for a puppeteer. The yearlong job led her to a gathering of the Puppeteers of America, where she met 1,000 other predisposed folks, many of whom were making a moderate living off puppets, and that was it.

"Puppetry is a little like the ministry," she laughs. "You don't choose it; you're called to it."

After several national television shows in Canada, a job with the Muppets on Fraggle Rock brought Armstrong to the Bay Area, where she lived for a time with the infamous Lettie Schubert, co-founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild (one of the largest such groups in the country), and met Kamala Portuges, the other half of IIMM.

"Kam would have been a wonderful doctor, or anything else she had wanted to be," says Armstrong. "She is a very, very smart woman."

Compared with the trilling brightness of Armstrong, Portuges seems almost solemn. With dark hair and a calm, quiet, unwavering gaze, her face displays the seriousness and tension one might expect to see in a classic literary outsider.

"One thing I cannot stand is the American assumption that puppetry is for children," says Portuges. It is a sentiment relayed earlier by Armstrong, who cited European puppet theater as her inspiration in Canada, but in Portuges I discover the gravity and frustrated passion that emerged in the expressions and movements of the Malkovichmarionettes.

"Puppetry is a universal medium, capable of great emotional depth," says Portuges, citing Henk Borwinkle, a puppeteer who worked inside insane asylums "raising questions about the composition of the mind and exploring the confines between what is real and imagined."

"We do a lot of cute stuff, too," says Portuges with her hand inside the furry purple belly of her Gleebot Sam, a companion to Armstrong's pink Gleebot, Sheila. "It's what we get paid for."

Cute as Sam is, he is also one of Portuges' primary characters, and one of the stars of IIMM's upcoming independent video. As Sam joins our conversation, with wriggling nose and thoughtful hand gestures, I become aware of his well-drawn personality, very distinct from Portuges' own but with similar shading -- slightly sarcastic, a little gravelly, very funny, and full of soft, careful sighs. As has been the case with many directors who have worked with Portuges, I soon find myself wanting to direct questions at the puppet as well as the person.

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