Pitch-perfect puppetry performances bring 'Lay Dying' to life

Filled with vivid staging, artful hand-carved marionettes, pitch-perfect performances and a carnival-like state of mind, "As I Lay Dying" deftly fulfills founder Michael Haverty's passion for a decidedly literary approach to puppetry. He has previously displayed that passion in productions such as "Gilgamesh" (based on the ancient poem).

"As I Lay Dying" is spooky and dark, though often darkly funny, in the telling of the Bundren family's clumsy attempt to bury their bitter matriarch, Addie. Haverty succinctly adapts Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness prose delivered by multiple characters. The use of folk art-style puppets gives the audience a kind of safe distance from the rambling prose. Sometimes the characters, whether portrayed by puppets or actors, pop out of windows painted in their resemblance and break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. These are poignant moments of literary deconstruction that bring the viewers even closer to the characters.

Haverty also makes grand use of the Woodruff Arts Center's intimate Hertz Stage. Along with those revealing stage windows, hand-painted backdrops are often removed to reveal still other backdrops as scenes and perspectives shift in a rhythm that keeps the play to an intermission-free one hour and 15 minutes. Dancing skeletons brandishing scythes hang overhead, underscoring the dark comedy unfolding below.

Haverty broadens the puppetry to include silhouette animation courtesy of Kristin Jarvis, which keeps the production from feeling one-dimensional even if there's little fear of that happening.

The production also benefits from an experienced cast, particularly Matt Stanton as the patriarch Anse. The artistic associate of Push Push Theater and former artistic director of Dad's Garage captures all of Anse's befuddlement and also his ultimate cunning. Amy Rush brings a sympathy to Dewey Dell, the lone daughter of the Bundren clan, who constantly finds herself at the mercy of men and her own lust.

And then there's the soundscape, which comes in song and sound effects by multi-instrumentalist and composer Damon Young and percussionist Davis Petterson. It is here that "As I Lay Dying" truly takes on its carnival aura. Young switches from pump organ to banjo to train whistle at a moment's notice, even stopping to play old 78 records on a gramophone. When he jams on the pump organ, Young looks like he's driving a car at breakneck speed.

The music and effects are so intrinsic in their details that they become another character in the play, although at times it's hard to say whether the character is a complementary or competing one. It's a testament to Haverty's ambition and vision that a strength in this production could also serve as a potential weakness.

Haverty remounted his company's debut to better prepare it for the 2009 National Puppetry Festival, which will be held July 14-19 on the campus of Georgia Tech. If this past weekend's performance is any indication, "As I Lay Dying" will come with all strings attached.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.