Foam and Fantasy 

Calling her work "Object Animation," Liebe Wetzel is making the world safe for inanimate objects

The outgoing message on the answering machine in Liebe Wetzel's Oakland home invites callers to leave a message for Foamée, the actress as well-known for her scandalous offstage affairs with other performers as her lyrical onstage presence. "Foamée is always trying to seduce other members in my cast," Wetzel says openly of the charter member of her troupe, Lunatique Fantastique.

Wetzel is happy to capitalize on her star's indiscretions, offering sponsors copies of Foamée's journal, which features photos documenting an intense affair with Wetzel's sweatshirt. Don't expect the Starr Report, though, because as anyone who has encountered Wetzel's magical puppeteering can attest, Foamée is a light tan strip of foam about thirty inches long, square in crosssection, and until Wetzel met her, quite inanimate.

"I give breath to objects," explains the slender, gray-eyed Wetzel over iced tea at the Lakeshore coffee shop she calls her office. Calling her work "object animation," Wetzel is developing a style of puppet work that bypasses language, even as it introduces characters with shading, substance, and depth. While she may be "making the world safe for inanimate objects," as she says only half-jokingly, she and her collaborators, with their strips of foam, white napkins, and sheets of newspaper, are also bringing puppet performance squarely into the realm of serious theater.

"I perform objects. I look at things and I see a personality. I just got back from the hardware store and I was thinking, 'Oh man, they all know that I'm still sniffing around for a few final things for Brace Yourself! [her current project, scheduled to open next month at the San Francisco Fringe Festival]. All of these objects are like, 'Pick me! Pick me! I work with the toilet! You'd like me, I'm a little round thing that can bob up and down! I'm a colander! I'm a pan! You want to use me!'"

Wetzel grew up in Dallas, the younger of two children. Although she always preferred her neighbor's GI Joes to her own Barbies (the former, being fully articulated, can actually do things), she had no inkling that she would eventually make her living manipulating pot lids and styrofoam peanuts.

In the late '70s, when women were suddenly being encouraged to go into math and science, Wetzel found she was good at both -- so good that she got her BA in Biology and Biochemistry from Rice. She went on to a stint at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, working with a woman who was studying cell division. "I liked the fly lab best," she recalls, "The drosophilia look pretty cool under the dissecting microscope." Still, she quickly discovered that she really didn't love the work.

The turning point came one morning when Wetzel, running late for work, wrapped her car around a tree. Though she walked away unscathed, she heard a voice in her head saying, "Life can be really short." Returning to school, Wetzel studied acting, eventually moving to Seattle where she became enamored of nonverbal mask work being taught at the Cornish College of the Arts. "When I saw them," she says of her first experience with the "neutral masks" that a Le Coq-trained teacher had brought in, "it was one of those moments when the electricity crackles, you're like, 'Wow!,' and huge lightbulbs go off. So I proceeded for the next year to be horrible at mask work."

Moving to the Bay Area, Wetzel worked as a strolling entertainer at special events. But even as she juggled, mimed, and stilt-walked her way around numerous fairs and festivals, Wetzel was exploring nonverbal performance, studying at the Dell'Arte school of physical theater. There she started to get the hang of working with masks. She also spent time studying with improvisation pioneer Keith Johnstone at Canada's Loose Moose Theater.

Lunatique Fantastique grew out of experiments with foam and found objects Wetzel did a few years ago, leading to the widely appreciated shows The Wrapping Paper Caper, Objects in Predicaments, and Snake in the Basement: The Persecution of Rev. Bill Pruitt. The company has performed around the country, and Wetzel is in increasing demand as a performer and teacher. She couldn't be happier. "When you find your art, when you find your medium of expression, your world explodes."

Like her previous shows, Brace Yourself!, the story of how her father contracted polio when he was four, and the impact it had on his life, enters more complicated territory than the usual puppet show. Frightened, partially paralyzed, and shunned by other children, Otto Wetzel was sent to Warm Springs, Colorado for rehabilitation. Although he was eventually able to walk again, Wetzel's father never openly discussed his childhood experience until she decided to write the piece. As well as opening up communication between Wetzel and her father, Brace Yourself! has given her a chance to meet her late grandmother through the older woman's diaries.

At a rehearsal for Brace Yourself!, which will open on September 7 at the Exit Theater in San Francisco, Wetzel's particular genius becomes clear. She's extremely patient with her "manipulators," the seven people who move the objects around, but she's also very precise. Penciled storyboards in her lap, she watches intently as the manipulators create a pack of noisy children in a playground from a bicycle wheel and several pairs of children's shoes. "I'd like more birdage here," Wetzel asks, and a woman obligingly introduces a bird made of an Albertson's bag attached to a stick.

The rehearsal, in the Grand Lake Neighborhood Center, attracts the attention of people waiting for the bus, who watch through the glass door as the manipulators hunt around in cardboard file boxes for purses, shoes, and cheese graters. It's an incongruous image -- the manipulators in their black hoods and gloves, brandishing kitchenware in front of a riot of murals, children's paintings, and paper flowers covering every surface of the room.

The show is a month away, and while six weeks of intensive group work has produced some truly moving moments, there are still transitions to be ironed out, scenes to be integrated, stage business to be refined. Everything seems to boil down to how many hands Wetzel has at her disposal. "If we had another hand there, the doctor could have his mirror," she says, and the young woman who will have to stand perfectly still with her arm above her head holding a pot lid tries to stifle a groan. Earlier Wetzel had joked that she only remembers to break her manipulators when she sees them swaying on their feet; this isn't easy work -- Wetzel wants every character to be "on" all the time. "There are no dead moments," she says, and it's clear that she is concerned not only about the appearance of the work, but the audience. "The responsibility of the performing artist is to take care of the audience. The audience is a gift."

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