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Puppets Tell the True Story

Find the Meaning of Christmas at Thetford’s Eclipse Grange

  • Puppeteers Ria Blaas and Suzanne Lupien during a rehearsal of "A Christmas Story" at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt. on Dec, 19, 2013. Peeking around the curtain is Brigid Eastman, who has been helping with the show. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Puppeteers Ria Blaas and Suzanne Lupien during a rehearsal of "A Christmas Story" at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt. on Dec, 19, 2013. Peeking around the curtain is Brigid Eastman, who has been helping with the show. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mary and Joseph head to Bethlehem and Pizza Hut during a performance of "A Christmas Story" at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt. on Dec, 19, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Mary and Joseph head to Bethlehem and Pizza Hut during a performance of "A Christmas Story" at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt. on Dec, 19, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Puppeteer Ria Blaas talks with Molly, right, and Brigid Armbrust, left, in hood, at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt, 2013. The sisters and Anika Eastman, second from right, have written and will perform a puppet show called "Milk," which will be performed with "A Christmas Story"  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Puppeteer Ria Blaas talks with Molly, right, and Brigid Armbrust, left, in hood, at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt, 2013. The sisters and Anika Eastman, second from right, have written and will perform a puppet show called "Milk," which will be performed with "A Christmas Story" Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Puppeteers Ria Blaas and Suzanne Lupien during a rehearsal of "A Christmas Story" at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt. on Dec, 19, 2013. Peeking around the curtain is Brigid Eastman, who has been helping with the show. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Mary and Joseph head to Bethlehem and Pizza Hut during a performance of "A Christmas Story" at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt. on Dec, 19, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Puppeteer Ria Blaas talks with Molly, right, and Brigid Armbrust, left, in hood, at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford, Vt, 2013. The sisters and Anika Eastman, second from right, have written and will perform a puppet show called "Milk," which will be performed with "A Christmas Story"  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

In Ria Blaas’ and Suzanne Lupien’s version of the Nativity story, a very pregnant Mary persuades Joseph to stop for fast food on the way to Bethlehem. Jesus is born in a recyclable manger. Mary worries about paying her taxes online.

It’s a version of the Nativity story with modern flourishes, a marionette show that Blaas, a Norwich-based sculptor and puppeteer, and Lupien, a Norwich farmer and artist, have performed over nearly three decades in Cornish, Lyme, White River Junction and, early on, in Europe.

In fact, Lupien performed one of those shows entirely in Dutch, a language she didn’t know. Blaas joked that her twangy American accent turned Mary into an unwitting sex symbol.

The duo takes the show to the stage every few years, Lupien said, performing as the Upper Loveland Puppets and titling the show A Christmas Story , not to be confused with the 1983 film of the same name. This year’s run will begin tonight and last through the weekend at the Eclipse Grange Theater in Thetford Hill. It’s the first since a group of shows at White River Junction’s Main Street Museum four years ago.

“One thing I love about it is it’s sweet,” Lupien said of the show. “I really enjoy taking this well-known classical tale and making it accessible and friendly. I like that.”

The two take pride in keeping the show free of cynicism and sarcasm, as well as free of subtle messages, statements or metaphors. Blaas, who built the marionettes decades ago, said audiences have seen the show as a feminist production or a political statement. It’s neither.

More than anything else, it’s about retelling the original Nativity story while injecting those modern references into it. It’s about the fact that Christmas is “not only Santa,” Blaas said. “Kids don’t even know” the Nativity tale, she said.

“She makes it funny,” said Brigid Armbrust, popping up from behind a two-tiered structure.

That structure, which sits stage right from the marionette theater, serves as a stage for an opening act — a hand puppet show put on by Brigid, 11, Molly Armbrust, 7, and Anika Eastman, 10.

The three girls, who have worked with Blaas since October, created their performance on their own and have since tweaked it with Blaas.

Last Thursday, they ran through the show at the Eclipse Grange Theater. It’s a tale about a mischievous cow and a baker who needs milk, sending his young, bumbling assistant to get some. As Blaas accompanied the action with a clarinet, moments of physical (puppet) comedy — a bucket placed over a puppet’s head, the chase of a mouse around the topmost stage — elicited big laughs from Lupien, who was sitting on a chair in the rafters.

“My big thing is I want them to spend time with someone doing something they love,” said Kelly Armbrust, Brigid and Molly’s mother. “It’s about being around someone who’s living a real life.

“I think they’re enjoying learning what’s funny, too,” she added.

After a run-through of the lead performance, the girls gathered backstage. Prior to their crash course with Blaas, none of them had done puppetry or really considered it.

Now, they help out during the main show, acting as stagehands, moving things around and giving music cues.

And they all said they grew to enjoy the art form w hile scurrying around beneath their tiered structure in the semi-dark, communicating with each other solely with visual cues.

“It’s not that hard,” Anika said.

“You just have to get used to it,” Molly replied.

According to Lupien, they have. After the run-through of their show, Lupien clapped. “Really good, girls,” she said. “Really perky and good.”

Upper Loveland Puppets’ “A Christmas Story” runs at 7 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford. General admission tickets are $10. No reservation is necessary.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.