If you were to look up object puppetry in the dictionary, there is a good chance you would find Liebe Wetzel‘s name. In the world of puppetry, Wetzel and her company, Lunatique Fantastique, are pioneers. In Wetzel’s skillful hands, inanimate objects are given breath, movement and focus — the three rules of object puppetry. As she puts it, she is finding the essence of a character in an object. Wetzel’s work is loosely based on Japanese bunraku puppetry, in which the artists dress from head to toe in black so that they disappear and create the illusion that their puppets are moving on their own.
Wetzel was always interested in puppets, but she was not confident in her ability to construct them. This led her to develop a form of object animation that requires nothing more than an interesting object and a manipulator’s skill in bringing it to life. Her first character, for example, was a talented young actress by the name of Fomé constructed of a single strip of beige-colored foam.
Spark reveals the secrets behind Wetzel’s puppetry magic and the profound subject matter of her plays, which could be more difficult for traditional theater with live actors. Without dialogue of any kind and with puppets that are nothing more than mere outlines of living characters, Wetzel has the uncanny ability to tell tragic stories with grace and humor. Wetzel is interested in populations that don’t have a voice, such as Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, people who have polio and women who are victims of sexual abuse.
In her 2006 project titled “Beauty and the Breast,” Wetzel, in collaboration with longtime Bay Area theater director Jayne Wenger, broaches the subject of breast cancer. Produced by Exit Theatre, “Beauty and the Breast” tells the story of Bresty, a bright purple bra who battles breast cancer and makes the difficult decision to have a mastectomy. For this production, Wetzel and Jayne Wenger decided to get rid of the black outfits of the puppet manipulators and expose them, a first for a Wetzel production. Other objects, such as a flowerpot, trowels and handkerchiefs, fill out a cast of characters that may never have realized their full potential if Wetzel hadn’t come along.
Liebe Wetzel, a Texas native, earned a B.A. in biology and biochemistry from Rice University. After surviving a nearly fatal car crash, she decided to follow her dream and began studying acting all across the continent, including at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre in Northern California and the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, Canada. Since its founding in 2000, Lunatique Fantastique has gained popularity in theater sectors locally and overseas from such plays as “Reframing the Hourglass,” “The Wrapping Paper Caper,” “Objects in Predicaments” and “Snake in the Basement: The Persecution of Rev. Bill Pruitt.” Wetzel’s innovative work has won many awards, including the “San Francisco Bay Guardian” Goldie Award for Best New Theater Talent, as well as Best of Fringe and Top Box Office Hit in the 2001 and 2004 San Francisco Fringe Festival.