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Open Eye Figure Theatre opens a new home

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Sommers and Haas
Michael Sommers and Sue Haas, co-founders of Open Eye Figure Theatre stand outside their new venue.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Walking into Open Eye Figure Theatre is disconcerting. The century-old brickwork sparkles after a huge renovation.

What induces the sense of imbalance is the stage at the far end of the room.

It's small, but exerts an almost gravitational pull as you lean forward to watch the gaudily painted puppets cavorting on stage.

Two bulging-eyed characters confront one another. There's Caspar, the odd-job man whose been hired to clean up an old library and Herr Wagner the foppish academic who is looking for the book of spells hidden by his late master. He's enraged by Caspar's presence.

"How dare you trespass into the sanctum sanctorious?" he screeches. "What, pray tell, are you doing here?"

Open Eye facade
The facade decorating the Open Eye Figure Theatre.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Well, something Herr Wagner that you, a noble man of knowledge would know nothing about," Casper replies.

"And what would that be?"

"Work!"

This is "Prelude to Faust," Open Eye's first full production in it's new home.

It appears to be a puppet show, but it's much more than that. It's a social comedy, a morality tale, with some surrealism in the shape of flying human hearts thrown in for good measure.

Open Eye co-founder Michael Sommers wrote the show after researching the Faust story in Germany and the Czech Republic.

He says the tale of the man who sells his soul to the devil first appeared in the 16th century in crudely printed pamphlets. The story attracted puppeteers because it had all the right elements for them: devils, fire, magic tricks.

"So actually the first few adaptations of this little chapbook was puppet theater and then it kept being adapted in different ways," Sommers says. "Both the German and the English writers of 'Faust' saw this as a puppet play and said 'Wow, there's something really, really here.'"

Casper
Casper is the central character in "Preludeto Faust." He's an odd-job man who is smarter than he lets on, especially when it comes to making a deal with the Devil for his soul.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Originally commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1996, "Prelude to Faust" premiered in this very building, then called Patrick's Cabaret.

It toured internationally, firmly establishing Open Eye's reputation for creativity. Like much of Sommers' work "Prelude" works on several levels. The central story follows Caspar, the ordinary guy who finds the spell to summon the devil. Like Faust, he's offered endless riches in exchange for his soul.

"Only he decides he's not really sure," Sommers says. "So he just wants a one day trial offer. The devils say "Sure we'll give you one day." So he has one day and he takes advantage of it, you know has a big party with his friends, and the devils come and say "Are you ready to sign?" And he says, "You know what? I don't think so. I like my soul the way it is."

Caspar's story is intertwined with the story of "Everyman" a forlorn character looking for meaning in simple objects. But they're apples, eggs, books, and wine, each riddled with symbolism. Sometimes Everyman is a puppet. Sometimes he's a live actor, a giant squeezed into the narrow confines of the puppet stage.

Sometimes the show is laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it's baffling - which is not a bad thing according to Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce.

"Prelude" set
Mephistopheles looks up from Hades in Open Eye Figure Theatre's "Prelude to Faust"
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"I don't understand it all and I'm fine with that," Royce says. "Because sometimes I go to the theater not necessarily to understand things in a straight narrative, but just to be provoked."

The new Open Eye space only seats about 80 people. However Royce says he expects just having Open Eye doing this work in this space will make a mark on Twin Cities theater.

"You know, it's kind of like a spice," he says. "When you add a very small amount of spice to a large stew that spice can have quite an impact on the flavor of that stew."

Open Eye intends to have an impact. The group's other co-founder is Sue Haas. She's married to Sommers.

Haas says Open Eye wants to build a community with audiences and performers. The space will be available to other artists, through an open studio program. Haas says Open Eye will also continue its "Driveway Tours" where it sets up a puppet booth in someone's yard and performs for a neighborhood.

"We've done 200 shows to 16,000 people, one back yard at a time," she says.