THE stage is bare and dark, and the only props the two performers use include a chair, a black hat, a small shirt, a pair of fake eyeballs, and a nose. But for an hour they enthrall and astonish the audience, which laughs uproariously at points.
In their performance of ``The Adventures of Ginocchio,'' Hugo Suarez and Ines Pasic, otherwise known as Teatro Hugo & Ines, use pantomime and puppetry to transform various body parts into a hodgepodge of hilarious characters. A foot becomes a face mimicking a variety of expressions; fingers intertwined in a certain way turn into a dancing girl; Hugo sits in a chair, attaches the eyeballs and nose to his kneecap, puts a shirt on his leg and his arms through the sleeves, turning this ``puppet'' into a street musician with a life of its own. The performers behind the characters seem to disappear as their limbs, hands, and feet become animated beings.
For anyone who thinks puppetry is limited to string or hand puppets that dangle or bob up and down behind a two-dimensional stage, a visit to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, where Teatro Hugo & Ines recently performed, will quickly shatter that assumption.
Located in a three-story brick building that used to be a school, the Center for Puppetry Arts is the largest organization dedicated to the art of puppetry in North America.
Inside its doors, a museum houses more than 200 puppets from around the world, ranging from primitive 13th-century Mexican clay figures to exquisitely crafted Asian rod puppets to Link Hogthrob and Dr. Strangepork, Jim Henson's famous pigs who appeared on the ``Pigs in Space'' episodes of ``The Muppet Show.''
In addition to the museum, three theaters provide space for a variety of shows. During the day, hundreds of schoolchildren fill the seats to see the center's resident company and other artists put on shows such as ``Paul Bunyan and Other Tall Tales'' and ``Dinosaurs.'' In the evening, company and international artists stretch the definition of puppetry in their performances for adults.
There are also several rooms devoted to educational activities where children learn how to make their own puppets. In the basement are work areas filled with creative clutter, including a prop room and a design room where huge dinosaur feet, sewing machines, fabric, and other tools of the trade are scattered.
The Center for Puppetry Arts was started here in 1978 by Vincent Anthony, executive director, who made a career switch in the 1960s from acting to puppetry. ``I decided this was so wonderful that I really wanted to do it the rest of my life, and I really have,'' he says during an interview. The seeds for creating the center were planted in the 1970s when Mr. Anthony, then president of Puppeteers of America, helped plan an international event of puppetry performances and exhibits in Washington, to spotlight the art form.
``During that time I realized that all the things we were pulling together were going to be gone after 1980 - major exhibits to look at puppetry historically, globally, politically, big education programs, the world's resources of performances ... and I started thinking there needs to be a place for this,'' he says. Since he had made Atlanta his home since 1966, it became a natural location for such an enterprise.
Puppetry, Anthony says, seems to have become the new art of this culture. ``It's really being discovered by people,'' he says. ``It's exciting because we shed the ego of the actor, and because we shed the ego, we shed the size of the actor, the cumbersome nature of the actor. Suddenly we have the ability to change scale on a moment's notice....
``We are able to engage imaginations in a new way,'' Anthony says. ``We're able to use visuals differently than people are able to in traditional text-based theater.''
Puppetry in written record dates back 5,000 years to China and India, and puppetry historians believe it has been an inherent part of every culture. ``Puppetry is such a global art form there's nowhere on the planet you could go and not find it,'' says Rita Byers, producer of the center's shows.
In the United States, a man named Tony Sarg helped make it popular in the 1920s and '30s and paved the way for other famous puppeteers such as Bil Baird. But Anthony credits the rebirth in present-day puppetry in the US to Jim Henson, who he says helped the public rediscover the art. During the past 10 years puppetry has also attracted more visual artists who are captivated by its possibilities.
``In the '80s and '90s, the profile of an American artist dealing on the adult level with the art form is that they probably have a visual arts background, they probably studied another culture ... and they are interested in some kind of message,'' he says. ``There are half a dozen or so artists out there that are making an impact.''
Many of these artists - from Japan, the Czech Republic, and other countries (Teatro Hugo & Ines are from Peru and Bosnia, respectively) - perform world premieres here, along with the center's resident company of four puppeteers.
``One great thing about Atlanta is we've really cultivated an audience,'' says Bobby Box, the center's chief puppeteer. But, he adds, that loyal following constantly challenges them. ``In a lot of places you bring out a puppet, stick it on your hands, and suddenly people think it's really cute. Here in Atlanta you can't do that because people have seen what a puppet can do. They want to see it fly and dance and transform into something else.... They've become a very demanding audience, which encourages us to go even further with things.''
Basically there are five kinds of puppets: rod, hand, shadow, marionette, and body puppets. But the definition of puppetry, which Anthony defines as an object used in front of other people and imbued with life of its own, is in some ways an expansive one and can include the kind of performance Teatro Hugo & Ines did using parts of their body. People may say that's not a puppet show, Anthony says. ``Well, that's not your preconceived notion of puppets.''