Puppeteers explore the dark side of love with ‘Gesueldo, in Heaven’

    Valentine’s Day is known to be a day that celebrates the romantic and lighter side of love, but the creators of “Gesualdo, in Heaven,” an experimental puppet show, are more interested in showing the darker side of affection.

    The performance is inspired by the life of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Renaissance composer, murderer, and the object of fascination for Peter Gaffney, the puppets’ creator.

    The wooden puppets resemble human figures, complete with mobile, mechanical limbs and act out Gesualdo murdering his wife, her lover and his infant child.

    The 45-minute show opens on Valentine’s Day at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training on North Second Street. Gaffney said Feb. 14 wasn’t an intentional debut for the dark story, but that he and the cast are glad it turned out that way.

    “It’s a day when we’re all supposed to at least try to believe in the Hallmark Card version of love and what he did with music and his is a huge disruption any kind of Hallmark version of anything.”

    Gaffney hoped for years to create a performance inspired by what little is known about the life of Carlo Gesualdo and his music. He and composer Ben Diamond, along with the show’s experienced puppeteers, got together to imagine a story about Gesualdo and refer to the character as “our Gesualdo.”

    Diamond’s live score was inspired by the lack of tonal center in Gesualdo’s music. He uses a vibraphone, drums, a bow and looper pedal to create a brutal, fragmented atmosphere that complements the show’s eery puppets, who tend to fall apart and possess exchangeable faces.

    Gaffney was inspired to create the puppets out of wood because of a story that Gesualdo cut down every tree he could see from his castle. He created a template for the show’s seven puppets and the assembly-line style of the production got Gaffney thinking of Ikea, especially because of the fragile nature of the puppets.

    The puppets strap onto the actors and they use their entire bodies to animate the characters. At first, the tendency for a puppet to lose a limb was troubling for the cast, but they quickly adapted to the hiccup.

    “Every once in a while when something goes wrong the puppets start to quiver, as if they know that they’re disposable and exchangeable,” said Gaffney. When one puppet falls apart, the actor tosses the body into the bin and grabs another.

    To Gaffney, this informs the performance because of the few surviving fragments of Gesualdo’s history and his ever-evolving compositions. “It’s a little bit about Gesualdo, but it’s also about this predicament of an Ikea world.”

    “Gsueldo, in Heaven” runs Feb. 14-16 and Feb. 20-22.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal