The sign of success for a puppeteer is less the applause at the end of a play than the show of hands afterward.

After Eric Bass' opening performance recently of "The Melon Thief: Comic Tales from Japan" at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre, one would have thought there was Theater either an outbreak of kidney failure or a request for volunteer ice cream tasters.

The children wanted to know about the technical end of the show, but a lot of hands went down after one boy asked the most telling question of all: "How do you get started in puppetry?" It's a question about the past that suggests a future.

For "The Melon Thief," Bass, one-time artistic director of the Children's Theatre of the Open Eye in New York, is something of a one-hand band. With an assistant lending him an occasional helping hand, he manipulates three hand-and-rod puppets in the Japanese style. Cloaked in black, Bass is at once visible and invisible; by investing each character with a distinctive voice, Bass and his puppets become indivisible. There's a point at which one's focus narrows to the small stage and shuts off the manipulative shadows behind it, a tiny theatre of illusion and imagination. Which is why Bass is considered a master puppeteer.

There are two short plays involved here, connected by a tepid (and mercifully brief) ritual fan-dance by Bass' assistant, Muna Tseng.

The opener, "Busu," deals with a cranky old master who must leave some sugar in the care of two devious and dizzy servants. To keep them unsweetened, he convinces both servants that the sugar is a deadly poison. Of course, while the master's away, the chaps must play, and there's some jolly slapstick and irreverent humor that shows how well Bass understands the logic of children caught in mid-misdeed. The audience howled, perhaps in recognition.

The second story uses the same mischievous characters for a fun-filled sketch on sharing and mistaken identity. Bass' "old master" puppet, half-bent and sounding like a cross between Mr. Magoo and Fozzie Bear, is beautifully manipulated. Thanks to the puppeteer's dexterity, the old master's cautious movements and quizzical expressions project very well; he also seems to have picked up some of his semi-caustic rejoinders on the Borscht Belt.

"The Melon Thief's" overall mood is lighter than most of Discovery Theatre's offerings this year, and while one won't learn much about Japan--these stories would play as well set in Italy or Appalachia--the spark of wonder must sometimes come out of easy laughter.

"The Master Thief" will run Wednesdays through Fridays at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and on weekends at 1 and 3 p.m. through Sunday.