Puppetry is more than marionettes and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. It is an ancient art of storytelling.
Donna and David Wisniewski of the Clarion Shadow Theatre have taken one of the oldest forms, the shadow puppetry of Indonesia, and combined it with modern technology to create a new theater production for children.
Shadow puppets are flat and jointed and operated with a thin rod against a translucent screen. The screen is back-lit so the audiences see the shadows of the puppets.
"In olden days," says David, "the screens were lit by oil lamps. But we use overhead projectors to get a more cinematic effect."
"A lot of people said it looks like animation," says Donna.
David has also developed a more complex backdrop. The scenery is on a roll, "so when a puppet is riding a bicycle," says Donna, "it looks like it is moving, because the scenery goes whizzing by."
The Wisniewskis usually re-create popular children's stories, such as Rudyard Kipling's mongoose tale "Riki Tiki Tavi" and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." Today, as part of the Kennedy Center's annual open house, they will present "Peter and the Wolf."
"It's an unusual production because we don't have any narration," says Donna. "We have the music do the narration. In the introduction we explain to the children which instruments play which character. And the kids understand.
"It's funny," she continues. "We do sometimes have some overzealous parents who babble throughout the show, explaining everything. And the kids say, 'Ssssshhh.' "
The Sixth Annual Kennedy Center Open House Arts Festival takes place today from noon to 6 p.m., showcasing a variety of dance, theater and musical performances. Admission is free.