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"Odyssey of Puppets"-A Neighborhood Theater Group Tackles a Project of Epic Proportions

In the ramshackle headquarters of Portland's Shoestring Puppet Theatre, intern Blainor McGough has spent much of the winter patching together an ancient Greek army from scavenged metal parts. When McGough and her co-workers are done, they'll have a cast of Sicilian-style marionettes ready for a month-long presentation of Homer's "Odyssey."

"We're figuring out how they're made," McGough said. "It's the first time anyone has made them for this production, and we've been using some old marionettes we found in storage to go by, as well as Sicilian instructions on how to make them. The instructions are hard to follow, because the puppeteers didn't want to give all the secrets away.

In addition to cracking the codes of Italian puppet masters, the Shoestring players aim to unravel Homer's epic secrets. Shoestring's longtime director, Nance Parker, says she's wanted to do a version of "The Odyssey" for years because the narrative is so fascinating and has so many levels of meaning. The story raises questions about war, domestic happiness, the nature of courage and the desire to return home. "The feminist perspecti

ve is amazing," Parker says. "Just look how Circe turned all those men into pigs!"

Parker says she'll pack three chapters of the tale into the first three performances, and crank through four segments on the final night. Shoestring has been known to use unusual settings for weird productions - they once presented a medieval Italian epic with puppets in Eddie's Shamrock Bar - but this time around the group is using Agape on Congress Street. Agape is big enough for a real stage with plenty of room for puppets and puppeteers.

They'll need it. Parker explains that Sicilian marionettes are about 3 feet tall. They're typically custom-made for a story, and feature carved wooden heads, with solid wooden bodies and steel-rod legs. Shoestring artists may use some papier-mâché to round out the effect, but the puppets are intended to be crude. In Italy, marionettes often represent fighters - so graphically, in fact, that a bloody heart might fly out from one during a fray.

Parker says her puppets will strike a balance between the traditional and the contemporary, but this won't necessarily be a G-rated show. Saturday morning stagings will be tailored to kids, but Friday evening performances will be aimed at adults. Parker predicts the grownup version will feature "raw sex," if she can figure out how to accomplish this technically.

Staging "The Odyssey" with puppets present' creative challenges. In one chapter, Odysseus and his solddiers confront Cyclops, a one-eyed monster who shrinks them. For that scene, Shoestring artists are painstakingly constructing a troupe of small marionettes, replicas of the larger ones. The puppeteers have been learning to move the figures so they look like humans, and improvising to outfit them like classical men of war, using cast-off bits of household junk.

McGough is working with fellow intern Vasilios Gletsos, a puppeteer who's studying at Maine College of Art who has become a mainstay of Portland's surprisingly lively puppet scene. Last year, Gletsos drew enthusiastic crowds for his stagings of Russian literature and existential theater. Recent Shoestring productions, including a funky version of "A Christmas Carol," have also drawn packed houses. McGough attributes the group's popularity partly to the fact that neighborhood kids often get involved in performances, and partly to the fact that marionettes have a special appeal.

Puppeteering is a labor of love at Shoestring. Since the group charges just $5 a ticket, Parker says, it's "absolutely nonprofit." She says she would like to make money on theater projects, but her primary goals are artistic, not monetary. The troupe has developed a loyal following, drawn by the promise of local drama staged with little pretension. Past shows include "Persephone" and "All My Life I've Lived in the West End." The latter play - which Parker wrote, directed, produced and choreographed - explored the impact of drugs and alcohol on generations of Portland's working-class families.

This version of "The Odyssey" may be one of Shoestring's more ambitious endeavors, but it's being cobbled together from the same humble materials used for the life-size puppets that star in the group's New Year's Eve and Halloween parades. What the group lacks in financial backing, it makes up for with ingenuity. McGough, for one, says she's assembling the soldiers' armor using "whatever we can scrounge, like oil cans lamp parts."

Call them recycled classics.

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