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May 3, 2023
Facist Italy as seen through the eyes of a young man and his puppets
Review: We, Puppets
Marco De Simone in We, Puppets. Credit: Nicola Niceforo.

I've seen my fair share of plays about racism, but I've never seen the struggle between a facist government and its oppressed citizens dramatized as a puppet show. In We, Puppets, presented by Associazione Campania Danza at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU as part of the In Scena! Italian Theater Festival, writer and performer Marco De Simone plays a young puppeteer who charms the children of his town until the Italian Racial Laws of 1938 force him and his family into hiding. Even then, as he and his friends and family wait for salvation or destruction, he manages to raise the spirits of those around him through a puppet show about the animals of the Singing Wood: a thinly veiled allegory for the times in which they live.

While far from perfect, We, Puppets is a quirky, charming little show that packs a big punch. Saul, the puppeteer, begins by telling us about his childhood, complete with the story of his first ever puppet show (which made his grandfather fall asleep), and the satisfaction of winning the coveted best student award at school. Each anecdote is interspersed with a brief puppet show, usually starring the yellow squirrel Spillo: a lovable clown who's Saul's first and favorite puppet. (The show is performed in Italian with English supertitles).

It's not until the advent of a 1938 law banning Jews from attending school with Italians that we realize Saul is Jewish, and Saul, it seems, hadn't realized until that moment, either. Or, perhaps he simply didn't realize that being Jewish meant anything. His bitter discovery finds expression in his next puppet show, in which a dolphin is called out for swimming in a river: "What if you're really a trout and no one told you?" On a dime, the carefree adventures of Spillo turn into a tale about the animals of the Singing Wood--where the wise old owl who formerly watched over them has been replaced by a tyrannical duck and his spiteful goons.

Meanwhile, Saul and his family are forced to hide in one remote location after another. Though terrified, Saul continues his puppet show: eventually, the animals of the Singing Wood defeat the duck by dropping him down a waterfall. Saul's own story doesn't end quite the same way.

We, Puppets can feel simplistic at times: we don't get details about the Racial Laws or who exactly it is that's hunting Saul and his family. Then again, the events are filtered through the eyes of a child who presumably doesn't grasp what's happening. Where the show really packs an emotional punch is at the end, when Saul explains what the present generation can learn from the past. "Knowing the past," he says, "saves our present... None of that will happen again if you love." Hatred destroys, but love preserves--the kind of love Saul has for his puppets and for the children who once enjoyed his shows.

'We, Puppets' plays at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU on May 2 and 5. The In Scena! Italian Theater Festival runs through May 16 in various locations. Admission to all shows is free. For more info, visit

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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