The god of the dead Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the underworld, god of the dead, rises from the scarred hardwood floor of Elsewhere in downtown Greensboro, rises to his full height, perhaps seven feet, perhaps more. He’s fearsome, red like adobe, like blood, and pockmarks stud his oversize head. His ribcage swells from his shoulders, corrugated like a washboard. His grin is wide, toothy, malevolent. His arms are raised aggressively as he shuffles across the floor.
But then the large figure pauses, as if unsure of himself. His shifts his posture to the left, and his head comically wobbles. And then… and then the king of Mictlan, keeper of the dead, inspirer of human sacrifice and cannibalism, starts to… to… dance. He does a little two-step, shuffles backwards in an old-school vaudevillian turn. And then the most fearsome entity in Aztec mythology again tilts his head and lifts his arm, moves it to and fro. He’s waving at you.
“Hello!” comes the cheery voice, and then Laurencio Ruiz, the puppeteer, pops his head from behind the figure — his creation, fashioned from carved Styrofoam, plastic, rope and paint. His smile is genuine.
“You see?” he says. You do.
Puppetry is not just for kids
Ruiz practices a prehistoric art. Puppetry may go back more than 30,000 years. Egypt. The Indus Valley. Ancient Greece. Mongolia. Istanbul. Its roots run deep.
Today we think of puppetry as children’s entertainment, but that is a relatively modern conceit. Japanese bunraku, a form of musical theater utilizing puppets, dates to the 1600s. About a hundred years earlier in Europe, Punch and Judy used commedia dell’arte to make satirical political statements. During the French Revolution, puppeteers who refused to use their platform to criticize the bourgeoisie were imprisoned. In Africa puppets and masks are used for religious rituals and ceremonies. The Muppets didn’t come around until the 1950s.
And though Ruiz does do performances suitable for children, most of his act is decidedly grown up.
Take Mictlantecuhtli, which he based on genuine Aztecan artifacts in the museum of the Templo Mayor in his native Mexico City. The god of the dead was known for ripping his charges to pieces. And the puppet itself, which is more like a suit that he fastens to himself with Velcro straps, is big as a grizzly bear and can be just as menacing.
“Kids like it, actually,” he says. For some reason the smaller version of “Mic,” as Ruiz calls him, is scarier: a blood red marionette that Ruiz can stomp across the floor and articulate into eerily human poses. He can even swivel the head and make the teeth chatter, an old-fashioned style of puppet he learned to make at Pratt School of Art and Design in Brooklyn, NY.
Both versions of Mic, he says, are intended to honor those Mexicans who attempted to cross illegally into the United States but did not make it.
“Mictlan is where all the dead go,” he says.
“It’s like Heaven, the place you go when you die. And to get there you need to pass nine challenges. You could die again even if you’re dead.
“This is the Mictlan,” he says, meaning the US. “[According to the legend] it was in the North. You cross a river [to get there]. A dog is supposed to help you across; this is like the coyote who helps them cross the Rio Grande.”
He has a puppet he calls “Super Sado- Masochist,” with locked ankle and wrist cuffs and a Prince Albert on his genitalia. A bleeding effigy of Jesus on the cross he calls “Fromaggio de Culo” and another that he can bring to a priapic state with the pull of a string.
And then there is "75% off," a puppet crafted after an actual person of the same name, an Iraqi War veteran disfigured in a bomb attack. Like the real Anderson, the puppet is missing both his legs below the knee and its left arm below the elbow. A cigarette rests in its right hand, because Anderson said the only reason he didn’t lose the other arm is because he was taking a drag off a smoke.
And "Anna," a one-legged puppet created in honor of a fallen friend, an amputee who refused to wear a prosthetic, which he poses on a small pillow in suggestive positions to, he says, give her back her sexuality.
He call them “newly-abled puppets.” “You never see an amputee puppet,” he says. “You see these veterans with prosthetic pneumatic arms and legs. Sometimes even I flinch. And this is a way of playing with that. Always I have an interest in the body itself.
“Also,” he adds, “puppets with less limbs means less work for me.”
A scholarly approach
Puppetry is an art form like no other — or, perhaps, like all others. The crafting of the puppets themselves is straight-up sculpture with a bit of engineering. Devising their char acters and the storyline they’ll follow is creative writing. Bringing them to life on a stage is a disciplined performance art, like dancing or mime.
Ruiz comes to the Elsewhere Artists Collaborative, the funky museum/gallery/ co-op/performance space, as a visiting artist, on loan from Penn State University where he teaches theater arts and set design. Over the arc of his career he’s been a graphic designer, set designer, prop man, effects coordinator, painter, sculptor, photographer and performer.
He began making puppets after working on a Mexican TV show, “El G’iri G’iri,” a variety show the title of which translates loosely into “blah blah.”
His first puppet, he says, was an 8-foot character for use in a theater production in Mexico City.
“The actors really hated that puppet,” he says, “because it steals the show.”
He did a puppet show called Obscenikus, “about sex but in a very artistic way,” he says, and still dabbled in photography and set design. It took him a while to assume the mantle of “puppeteer.”
“Puppetry was the perfect medium for me to communicate the ideas I have in my head,” he says.
Puppets, he says, can get away with things human actors can’t. “A puppet can die as many times as you want,” he says. “It can do things I can’t or don’t want to do. [A puppet] can be like a weapon sometimes, it is so powerful.”
“We had [Ruiz] here in 2008,” says George Scheer, collaborative director of Elsewhere. “At the time we were working on a project to renovate the front window, to construct something of a performance space.
He created this fashion show, got 10 or 15 people from the community and created costumes for them from the collection. And on the backdrop of the stage he put a bunch of old coats and he had people put their arms in the sleeves and do this silent show. The whole backdrop came alive.
“He’s such in intense maker,” Scheer says. “You meet these artists who are so creative, every idea leads to another idea, and that’s who we like to work with. We tried to get him back for years, and then this NC public art grant came through, and with the new front window in we saw an opportunity to revitalize the street culture in downtown Greensboro, something we’ve always been interested in.”
Ruiz brings his talents to Elsewhere’s First Friday offerings this week, with a family-friendly puppet show at 8 p.m., followed by a show for mature audiences at 9:30 p.m. but the action really begins at Center City Park at 5 p.m., when Ruiz will unveil and launch a hot-air balloon as big as a bedroom, constructed from colorful tissue paper and glue. By early evening, there will be four of them floating along Elm Street.
The balloons, too, have their place in cultural history. “It’s a way of celebration” Ruiz says, “a Mexican tradition of celebration that is still happening in some of the villages.”
He picked up the craft in a village in Puebla, Mexico. “These 18-year-old kids were doing this,” he says. “They show me how to do this. I teach them some geometry so they can do more.”
The balloons are made from tissue that’s been glued and folded into 3-dimensional shapes: a ball, a star. Fire heats the air inside them, makes them rise weightlessly. The wind carries them up and away. Ruiz says they can fly so high they disappear, and they can land miles away.
“To see something so fragile, so ephemeral,” he says. “It doesn’t last. I like that idea. It’s there and then it’s gone.”
On the floor of Elsewhere, Ruiz dons a hand puppet — a bald, bearded fellow with an eye patch whose name is the sound of a Bronx cheer.
He slides his left arm into one sleeve and chooses an assistant from among the places denizens sitting before him on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, Ted Blumenthal. He instructs Blumenthal to work the right arm.
“Anybody can be a puppeteer,” Ruiz tells him. Together they inflate a long, blue balloon. They twist it, squeaking, as the puppet named Splllbt gives direction. Soon it is a jolly blue dachshund.
“Oh my doggy balloon!” says the puppet. With the puppet’s left hand, Ruiz animates the dog, making it pant and beg, scamper on the ground.
“Play dead!” commands the puppet, and the dog floats lifelessly to the floor.
“Uh oh,” says the puppet, nudging his doggie. “Doggie?” And then it pops back to life, licking the puppets face. The puppet, strange as it seems, looks like he’s smiling now.
“It’s almost like a musical instrument,” Ruiz says, disengaging himself from Splllbt. “The better you play, the more music you can make with it.”
Elsewhere Artists Collaborative; 606 S. Elm St., Greensboro; 336.549.5555; www.elsewhereelsewhere.org
Elsewhere’s First Friday show begins at Center City Park with a balloon launch at 5 p.m. More balloons will be released from Elsewhere’s storefront window at 6 p.m. The first puppet show begins at 8 p.m. and the adults-only show starts at 9:30 p.m.