Postcard from Hardwick
A Puppet Show in Which a Chicken Notes It’s a Free Country
The first thing to know about Rose Friedman and Justin Lander of Vermont Vaudeville and Modern Times Theater is that they’re funny. I mean laugh out loud, completely unexpectedly funny. The opening installment of the couple’s three consecutive Saturday Storefront Puppet Shows in Hardwick stars not only Punch and Judy but the King of Everything and — yes, you didn’t guess it — a shark.
The second thing to know about Justin and Rose is, funniness notwithstanding, they take live theater seriously. Early in the first Saturday show, the kiddie crowd on the rug at Rose and Justin’s feet discover that a puppet show requires a stage, puppets, and an audience, too. The crowd, from the get-go, is a necessary albeit wildcard element of the performance.
Many folks know the East Hardwick couple from their years in Bread & Puppet, and then as co-founders with Brent and Maya McCoy of Vermont Vaudeville. The Vaudeville shows are lengthier events, held in the Hardwick Town House with an intermission, a food truck, and the local version of dressed-up-to-go-out pizzazz — ranging individually from buttoning up a clean plaid shirt to stepping into stilettos. The Saturday shows attract the child contingent who claim choice seating on the floor, in front of the adults who generally gravitate to the folding chairs. Rose and Justin have such a following, however, that the audience is never just parents with young ones. Folks come simply because the shows are witty, the Red Sky Trading sweets heavenly, the price affordable, and laughter guaranteed. Keep your eyes open for impressive handknits in this crowd, too.
Rose and Justin’s aesthetic reveals their own fascination with handmade and homegrown, fitting for urban-raised folks who turned to homesteading after moving to Vermont. Puppets, stage, gramophone, and props reflect a time not so long ago when live entertainment was the entertainment. Even more intriguing, their material evolves specifically from the place they now live and work. A sugarmaker, Punch makes light about worrying over a little lead in the solder — a joke which gets the adults chuckling. Down in front, the kids, who could care less about solder, asks Punch to use the taps with bucket hangers. Punch confesses their props aren’t quite up to the crowd’s detailed (and knowledgeable) suggestions.
Never condescending to kids, Saturday’s show cracks up the audience with a chase scene finale featuring that shark and Punch’s Hamlet-esque existential awareness that “I may or may not be eaten.” Find out if Punch survives in the next show.
As anyone in Vermont knows, this cold and snowy winter has stubbornly hung on. But March has a way of unburying all sorts of things — a dirty pink mitten, frozen dog droppings, a single silver key. When I left that windy afternoon from the Gohl building right in the heart of Hardwick’s downtown, the kids were busily writing suggestions on cards for next week’s show. Justin claimed to have no idea what they were going to perform. While I’m pretty darn sure there’s a plan, I can also imagine these two gleaning a few good ideas from the kids and tweaking the script, maybe just a little, and perhaps a little more, and then….
The nitty-gritty: make a trip to Hardwick for the Saturday Storefront Puppet Show Series, March 23 and 30, 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. Each Saturday features a brand-new show.