StreetSigns Center
Manbites Dog Theater
703 Foster St., Durham
Through Nov. 1

You no longer have to be a mystic to believe that subtle, unseen entities move and hold the world together. A basic knowledge of biology or physics will do the trick.

Where devas and angels were once believed to pull the levers of creation, cyanobacteria and the “strong force” of atomic science are now on the job. Thus a character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America refers to the ozone layer as “the crowning touch to the creation of the world: guardian angels, hands linked, mak[ing]… a shell of safety for life itself.”

There are also humans who do this work, unobserved. The central character in Torry Bend’s new puppet theater work, IF MY FEET HAVE LOST THE GROUND, may have the portentous name of Grace, but she’s clearly no Hindu deva or Buddhist bodhisattva. She’s a smart modern woman who encounters a curious envelope on a business flight one day, cached in the pocket of the seat ahead of her. Aside from a foreign return address, only two words”Read Me”appear on the envelope’s exterior. Inside, the woman finds a living, healthy human heart.

With Halloween so near, it bears clarifying: No gothic horror music accompanies this revelation. It’s obvious that we’re in the presence of a magical realism that is perhaps indebted to Federico García Lorca or Wim Wenders, but definitely not to Edgar Allen Poe.

Grace writes to the heart’s presumed owner to say she has it and takes it home with her. From that point on, the heart becomes the only other onstage character for most of this wordless 85-minute performance. In that time, Bend probes the veracityand dilemmasinherent in a series of metaphors having to do with the source and center of human feelings and relationships.

Entrusted, by chance, with the heart of anotheras we all are, sooner or laterGrace fumbles as she learns to take care of it. Significantly, no common tongue joins the two; what’s been called the inarticulate speech of the heart is expressed only in a single, specific animal sound. Through trials and errors, some more comic than others, Grace learns to comfort and coexist with her guest, though she cannot fully understand it.

Audiences that were astonished at the filmic dimensions of Bend’s The Paper Hat Game will find here an artist who has pushed puppetry even further into the cinematic.

Bend’s experimental set design centers on what first appears to be a translucent version of a dry-erase whiteboard. But as that surface tilts and moves to support Anna Nickles and Sarah Krainin’s puppets, we view Grace’s world through a series of different angles. Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Jon Haas’ video designs manipulate our perspective and point of view. In one moment, as Jil Christensen’s brisk piano score unfolds, we’re walking alongside Grace as she navigates a moving walkway at an airport. In the next, we’re viewing that same passage from an aerial shot.

Despite the considerable ingenuity put into making a puppet theater work look and act, in real time, like a film, and a plot whose increasingly mystic quest touches on death and transformation, I felt the true magic in this work lay somewhere else.

In Bend’s earlier pieces, curtains bordered the stage. With them removed here, we watched as four puppeteersJamie Bell, Drina Dunlap, Amanda Murray and Becky Woodrumworked throughout the show. Crisply and efficiently, they manipulated set pieces and rotated the stage. But it repeatedly took all four of them to articulate Grace’s joints and limbs and walk her through the scenes.

So carefully they held her, and the heart she found in the world. And their faces were so solemn as they bent toward their characters: storytellers who knew the ending of the tale even as they began it.

It was a meta-moment in which what happens in Bend’s pensive script was also taking place among the performers on stage. My thoughts returned to Wenders’ Wings of Desire as I watched these compassionate, interceding figures make Grace’s life possible. And on the trip home, alone, I wondered about the unseen ones that make ours work as well.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Master of puppets”