The main character in “The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet” stands about a foot tall and has a magnifying glass for a head and alligator clips for hands. He explores new realms by wheeling around on a paint roller base. You might call him a whimsical creation, but tread carefully using other descriptors around Wit’s End Puppets founding member Cecilia Cackley.
“I’m not opposed to whimsy,” Cackley says. “The word ‘cute’ has come up more often than I’d like during the rehearsal process to the point where people use it just to get on my nerves, and I’m like, ‘I don’t want it just to be cute, everybody.’ Come on!”
Cackley is mostly joking, but there’s something serious about the show’s fanciful tableau of puppets made from found objects and paper. Cackley conceived the show with Wit’s End co-founder Genna Davidson, drawing inspiration from Australian artist and author Shaun Tan. The pair appreciated the juxtaposition of Tan’s capricious creations and profound truths.
“He has such rich themes,” Cackley says. “He really speaks to this universal human experience of feeling like an outsider and feeling alienated.”
Yet Tan conveys complex ideas with simple narratives, just like the story of Kismet, the magnifying glass man. He lives in Cabinet World, which is populated by puppets made of objects. When his homeland is destroyed, Kismet goes in search of a new habitat, settling tentatively in a land where everything is made of paper. It’s essentially a fish-out-of-water scenario with a few twists: All the characters are puppets, and the 60-minute show is wordless.
“It’s hard with puppets, because there is no emotion — there’s action,” Cackley says. “So that’s been a huge challenge, to figure out what movements are needed to communicate the relationships and emotions and the different pieces of the story.”
In some ways it has helped that the show’s director, Carmen Wong, has little experience with puppetry. As the artistic director of Banished? Productions (“A Tactile Dinner,” “Into the Dollhouse”), Wong is no stranger to experimental theater. But she comes to puppetry with the fresh eyes an audience member might have, and she has discerned which movements advance the story and which could confuse.
“Is this a friend relationship? Is this a romantic relationship?” Wong says she might wonder during rehearsal. “Even if you don’t understand, you [have to be able to] kind of interpret.”
Other elements come to the puppeteers’ aid, including sound design, which will be handled by Nicole Martin, who also worked on the group’s Fringe Festival show, “Malachite Palace.”
This production, however, is quite different. Where “Malachite” started with a script and used shadow puppets, marionettes and voices, “Kismet” has been more complicated. It’s a devised production, meaning that rehearsals began without a script. The story was built collaboratively.
“Normally I write the story and I say, ‘Okay, I need a coyote that can do X, Y and Z, I need a bear, a deer and a fish, and the fish needs to be able to jump, and the bear needs to be able to run, and the coyote needs to be able to nod his head,’ ” Cackley says. “With this, we built all the puppets and then we’re like, ‘Okay, we want him to be able to do . . . no, he can’t do that.’ ”
The puppets, too, required more imagination. Cackley describes them as bastardized versions of traditional models — marionettes, hand puppets, found-object puppets — because most are amalgamations. A paper-made gecko creation, for example, has an accordion-like body with legs that move using strings but whose mouth is animated by a hand. And the idea for a bird-like puppet that represents a harbinger of destruction came to Davidson in a dream. The creature resembles a pterodactyl and was crafted out of a deconstructed umbrella.
The good news, for Cackley, is that there’s nothing adorable about it.
Then again: “If I can get someone’s attention with something that’s cute, I’ll go for it,” she concedes.
Through May 19 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. 866-811-4111. www.witsendpuppets.com. $15.