Amherst Magazine

The Poet and the Puppeteer

By Katherine Duke ’05

Two ’57 alumni collaborated on a new play full of medieval myth and magic.

[Theater] Magically reborn as a sorcerer-poet, a boy is adopted by a fisherman and his wife and uses his gifts to shake things up in the king’s court. This is the story of Taliesin, the latest from Ralph Lee’s Mettawee River Theatre Company. The play is a collaboration between Lee, who is a puppeteer, and his classmate Robert Bagg, a poet.  

The last time Lee and Bagg joined forces, they were seniors in college. Bagg had translated Euripides’ satyr play The Cyclops, and Lee directed the production and created masks for the characters. Lee then encouraged Bagg to write a play based on The Odyssey, and together they dramatized its Nausicaa episode.

To date, Bagg’s translations of eight plays by Euripides and Sophocles have been the basis of nearly 70 productions around the world. His Oedipus the King and Antigone are included in The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He also publishes original poetry, and he’s at work on a critical biography of poet Richard Wilbur ’42.

Actors and puppets perform outside, around a cauldron

Actors and puppets from the Metawee River Theatre Company staged Taliesin, the work of two Amherst fraternity brothers, on a lawn at Amherst in July. Photo by Michael Bauman.

After Amherst, Lee worked as an actor, mask-maker and designer, creating props and puppets for Shari Lewis’ TV show and the “Land Shark” figure for the iconic Saturday Night Live sketch. He founded and directed the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, for which he won an Obie Award. He became artistic director of the Mettawee in 1976.

Based in Salem, N.Y., and Manhattan, the Mettawee (mettawee.org/wordpress) specializes in shows with “large puppets and visual effects that are especially arranged for the out-of-doors,” Lee says. “And a lot of the plays are based on myths and legends.”

Early this year Lee was seeking a writer to script Mettawee’s planned Taliesin show. “I was really looking for a poet, because it’s all about poetry and inspiration,” he says. “That’s why I called Bob.” Bagg decided he owed a favor to the friend who had led him into the world of Greek drama.

Lee and his wife, costume designer and founding Mettawee member Casey Compton, wrote up a scenario, which Bagg fleshed out with dialogue and lyrics based on existing translations of Welsh folklore and the writings of a real medieval poet who went by the name Taliesin.

They collaborated mainly by phone and computer—Bagg sending drafts from his home in Worthington, Mass., and Lee giving feedback from New York, where he was rehearsing with the actors and creating masks and puppets out of papier-mâché, cardboard and other materials.

Actors and puppets

The puppets are the creation of Ralph Lee ’57. The script is by poet Robert Bagg ’57. Photo by Michael Bauman.

The Mettawee took the show on the road in July, August and September this year, performing on lawns and in parks throughout New York, Vermont and Massachusetts—including at the Kō Festival at Amherst. That show took place outside Wilder Observatory, a spot well suited to theater, Lee says: It’s tucked away from the street, the surrounding trees enhance the acoustics, and the ground slopes gently, giving the audience a good view.

“And occasionally,” he adds, “some old friends from my Amherst days will show up.”

This time, it was Bagg who showed up, not just as a name credited in the program but also as a viewer in the crowd. He declared the performance “just about perfect.”  

Duke is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.