BACK in 1976, David and Donna Wisniewski's sudden zest for puppetry brought them together in the Prince George's Puppet Theatre. A graphic artist countering a slow summer by taking a part-time job with the company, Donna enjoyed it so much she went into puppeteering full time and ended up running the company. David, ending a three-year stint as a circus clown, was tired of life on the road; hearing a position was open, he decided to give it a go. "I'd never done it, but I was good with props, so Donna hired me. Six months later we got married."

In 1980, the Wisniewskis left the Prince George's group and created the Clarion Puppet Theatre. Using several puppet styles, they also have become the leading figures of shadow puppetry in the United States. Their entry into a 2,000-year-old theatrical tradition originating in the Far East was "totally accidental," says David Wisniewski. "We were doing Persian folk tales with rod puppets, but there was no exposition at the beginning, the show was getting off on the wrong foot. There was an old overhead projector around, so we made some scenery, strapped a screen onto the back of the stage we'd built and rehearsed a few bits. And, boy, we were taken with it!"

So much so that Clarion has taken shadow puppetry, based on the movement of back-lit figures' shadows cast upon a screen, in new, distinctive directions. It's essentially the reverse-image of hand-shadow puppets one might play with on a wall, though the Indonesian and Chinese antecedents were highly ritualized affairs. "We did a lot of research but we knew we didn't want to be 'traditionalists.' When we started out, our goal was to treat puppetry as theater and develop an audience for it as theater, not just as a puppet show." The final product is nearly cinematic, with depth, movement and detailed scenery seldom found in puppetry.

The cinematic aspect "is something we wanted to develop, to break things down into medium shots, long shots, close-ups, dissolves. Kids today are brought up on film and television and to approach shadow puppetry without that technical sophistication . . . your audience wouldn't be as involved with it."

"That animated quality also makes the show bigger. You place it in a larger world, the kind of perspective and grandeur you don't find in most puppetry." The most stunning example of Clarion's work is the classic Russian folktale, "The Firebird," which will be performed at the Publick Playhouse today (11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) and again May 26-30 at the Bowie Fine Arts Center.

The work--a year in the making and "our most complicated and ambitious show"--is built around the complete 1910 Stravinsky score and combines rod and shadow puppetry. There is some narration but the story evolves mostly through gestures and movement. Each of the 10 rod puppets--3 1/2 to 4 feet high--represents 70 to 80 hours of modeling, carving, smoothing, painting and elaborate hand-sewn costuming. "I did a lot of research on costuming styles," says Donna Wisniewski. "You have to make your own patterns and have them fit while still allowing good movement."

For its shadow elements, "Firebird" uses flat-jointed figures, three overhead projectors and three roller bars (two horizontal and one vertical), all projected on a translucent screen. The main scenery is contained on an 80-foot roll of clear acetate with hundreds of tiny pieces of colored plastic (250 hours of Exacto work there); the other rolls are for special effects.

The rolls were story-boarded like cartoons, frame by frame, always keyed to Stravinsky's music. "We listened to the music a long, long time, talked about it before we even started story-boarding," says Donna Wisniewski. The end result is a remarkable piece of theater as entrancing for adults as it is for children.

Somewhere down the line, the Wisniewskis want to do larger theater pieces, more "adult" puppetry. "It's very difficult to sell adult puppetry because when you say adult, people automatically think you mean dirty," says David Wisniewksi. Clarion has done a program titled "Graven Images," a series of vignettes intended to show that "puppetry is capable of the same range of emotions that human theater is. But each time you divide--from 'puppet' to 'shadow' to 'adult'--you bring yourself lesser and lesser audience numbers." "Graven Images" got raves but small audiences.

The Wisniewskis continue to do school programs and to have residencies at various locations. "But we're reaching a point here where we need to develop what we want to be known for." A book on shadow-puppetry, with four chapters written and all the photographs taken, has been on the back burner for a year, but may come together during what is planned as a low-key summer. Which means there will be time to work on the "adult" puppet program, which David Wisniewski hints could be about the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostokovich. "It would be a surreal approach to an artist working in a totalitarian society. His music and the story of his life--where he had to sublimate all of his musical ideas in order to serve the state--is so incredible. There's a whole story there that could be told very nicely."

Or it might be a larger work, such as "Lord of the Rings." "Except that we'd be pretty long in the tooth by the time we got those scenery rolls finished," laughs David Wisniewski.