Zvi Sahar collects old items.
He loves flea markets, but two of his favorite collectibles are from his grandmother’s kitchen: a hand mixer and an old-fashioned ice cream scoop. Sahar also loves to put old and unwanted objects to good use in his PuppetCinema productions. Last year he used a flea market find, an old canvas army kit bag from the 1967 Six Day War, as the lead character in his multidisciplinary “Salt of the Earth,” based on Israeli novelist Amos Kenan’s “The Road to Ein Harod.”
This week Sahar returns to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with another PuppetCinema evening featuring his inventive puppetry, live actors and a camera crew that projects studied and close-up scenes of the puppets in action.
His “Suddenly,” based on a short story collection by Israeli best-selling author Etgar Keret, was developed in 2016 during a residency at the university’s School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. The performances, this Friday and Saturday, mark the U.S. premiere, coming just prior to shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York next week.
Sahar, who trained as an actor, started his theater career performing Shakespeare, Chekhov and other classic and contemporary works. Then he discovering puppetry.
“What fascinated me the most with puppets is making something [inanimate] come alive,” he said in an interview from his Ramat Gan home. “This is why I don’t see it as a kids or adult medium. It’s the same for everyone.”
He transforms found objects, like that army sack or something as mundane as a bag of cornflakes, and creates a simulacrum, representing the people, places and things that help him tell stories.
“An actor … presents what he feels,” Sahar noted, while “the puppet invites you to feel what it feels.
When a puppet gives you a gesture or a movement, that encourages you, the audience, to fill it with emotion.” That means puppets, unlike actors, are a blank slate, “a very special medium that can talk to different kinds of audiences. Audiences like to both experience something inanimate [coming] to life and like to put their own feelings in it.”
Inspired by the ancient Japanese genre called Bunraku, which traditionally requires three puppeteers to manipulate a single puppet, Sahar’s creations are surprisingly lifelike characters. But as important, if not more important than the puppets, are the stories the director tells.
“The main thing I am is a storyteller,” he said, “whether I’m acting scenes, directing scenes, making puppetry scenes, music scenes … the goal is to tell a story to the audience.”
In “Suddenly,” the story is told through a narrator and two actors in Hebrew; English surtitles are projected on the screen.
Unlike “Salt of the Earth,” Sahar said “Suddenly” is less overtly Israeli and far more universal. “Even though the story feels very light, very free form and casual, the drama underneath is devastating,” Sahar said.
But there is a notable similarity.
As in “Salt,” the world Keret created and Sahar replicated on stage and video is violent, even dystopian.
On the surface, there are scenes about a man going out for coffee, for example, but underneath, Sahar noted, “There is a deeply antagonistic point of view on life.” The fantastical world Keret imagined for “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door,” his collection, features sardonic tales; in one, a woman wakes up and unzips her boyfriend to find another non-Jewish man underneath. Then there’s a bit about a cheeseburger restaurant called Cheesus Christ. These odd snapshots provided visual and dramatic inspiration for Sahar.
At heart, the actor turned puppeteer and artistic visionary is simply — and proudly — a storyteller. For his army service, he was a tour guide instructing Israeli soldiers on the history of Jerusalem — all 5,000-plus years. That’s when he discovered his love of story.
“I remember a very specific day when I couldn’t take them somewhere,” Sahar said. “So we sat down and I just told them stories. That’s when I realized it was all about stories. We didn’t even need to go and see the place … the most important thing was the story.”
“Suddenly” by PuppetCinema, Dec. 1-2 at 8 p.m., Kogod Theatre, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Drive, University of Maryland, College Park. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 301- 405-2787 or visit theclarice.umd.edu.