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Merriment, Mayhem, and Marionettes

By Sally Waters Fisher / March 21, 1996

My brief involvement with theater began in an Ethiopian market almost 40 years ago. My children and I were discussing chickens when Joan, the wife of a young American military adviser, interrupted. "You have just the voice we need for our next play," she exclaimed. "Could you come over to my house and read some lines?"

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I had misgivings as I followed Joan in our Landrover filled with groceries and four sons. "Once I was a rabbit in a third-grade play," I told them. "But I didn't have any lines. I don't think I'd be any good as an actress."

"Dunno, Mom, you're pretty funny," my eldest said.

"Yeah, Mom," chorused his brothers loyally.

Outside Joan's gate, a huddle of Jeeps and Landrovers indicated that tryouts were already under way. "We'll only stay a minute," I assured the boys. "Perhaps there'll be cookies or juice."

What we found in Joan's living room were several American wives feasting on coffee cake, while a colonel's wife from Georgia dangled a doll-like figure from an intricate tangle of strings.

"It's easy, girls," she was saying. "Just move your fingers, and Peter Pan will walk up and down and wave his l'il hands." We exclaimed in awe. "And fla-ah through the air like this." Peter Pan soared above the cups and lighted on target by the cream pitcher. "Just a matter of pulling the ra-aht strings," Frances assured us.

Three hours later, the boys and I bumped down the dusty road to home, thrilled with the magic of theater and filled to the brim with coffee cake. "Don't tell Daddy that I'm in the marionette show," I begged as we unloaded the wilted vegetables. "He thinks I'm too busy already."

"We won't," Tony said cagily. "If you'll let us play with Captain Hook." They were still flying their pirate friend around the yard when their father came home.

"Captain Hook yet," he snorted. "Really, Sal."

"Well, I suppose it was type casting," I admitted. "But I had the loudest voice of any of the women. There's a bit of Sarah Bernhardt in every girl," I added airily. "It won't take much time."

Rehearsals began immediately and lasted all morning. In addition to memorizing our parts, we learned to operate our weighty 18-inch marionettes. After a few practice sessions our fingers were blistered and our thoughts muddled with memorable quotes that intrigued our offspring.

"Great blinkin' barnacles," Tony would mutter at the breakfast table, "Mommy's burned the toast again. She'll have to walk the plank."

Tim agreed over scrambled eggs. "She's getting entirely too careless."

Captain Hook took up a permanent position on my bedroom door. Between rehearsals I led him up and down the back hall, brandishing his lethal sword, muttering, "Oh, what a deliciously wicked pirate I am."

Under Joan's effervescent direction, the play began to take shape. While American wives were marionette-making, their husbands grudgingly constructed a marionette stage at the YMCA, rigged lights, set up sound amplifiers, and attended giddy fund-raisers.

The final week of rehearsal was chaotic. On Monday, an Ethiopian holiday, Wendy went camping in the Ethiopian lake country and was too sunburned to handle her strings on Tuesday. Tinkerbell's baby sitter had not appeared, so Tinkerbell brought her children to the rehearsal. My four-year-old, Tony, was also there. He had been to so many rehearsals he knew everyone's lines.

On Wednesday, Captain Hook's wicked mate, Smee, in real life a skilled horsewoman, was thrown and broke a collarbone. Hastily we pulled in army wife Frances and her Georgia accent. "Fire the guns!" Captain Hook would boom, and Smee would come right back, "Ah, ah, Suh. Readah, aim, fi-ah!"