Torry Bend, who is on the Theater Studies faculty at Duke, created her multi-media toy theater work, The Paper Hat Game, last year and first presented it in Duke’s Shaefer Lab Theater. I thought it was very nearly perfect. After some re-working, she is reprising the show for a three-weekend run in Manbites Dog Theater’s Other Voices Series. Oddly, the new version is not improved, and on opening night, there were many glitches in the marionette performance.

Bend’s background is in set design, although as a grad student at CalArts, she learned many techniques. In a recent interview, she told me that while working as a set designer in L.A., she became more and more interested in controlling the story herself, rather than merely making the places that support stories. She didn’t know anything about working with actors, but she knew a great deal about how people used and moved through space — so she began making “object theater,” with marionettes instead of humans.

The work is incredibly inventive. Bend’s use of different perspectives and radical scale changes gives one a dizzy thrill. Working in the tiny proscenium of puppetry, she puts images together like a filmmaker. In many ways, the story of The Paper Hat Guy (PHG) unfolds cinematically. By using drawings and models (the palette is gray scale), video (Raquel Salvatella de Prada) of the same, video of the world and people in it, live action on the set, and marionettes – all enlivened by a rich sound mix (Colbert S. Davis) and emotionally expressive lighting (Jeanette Yew) – Bend makes a believable and entrancing world. The artistic thought processes here, and the level of craft, are deeply impressive.

PHG’s story is inherently dramatic (and true). A nice guy looks around on the Chicago El and sees a lot of glum commuters. He picks up some discarded newspapers and begins to make paper hats, offering them to his fellow riders. Most take them; a few refuse. He keeps riding the El and making hats, becoming famous all over town. Yet one night, walking home from the El stop, he’s cornered and attacked. Badly hurt, physically and mentally, he holes up in his apartment, terrified to go out. He finally does, but the world is now so frightening and oppressive that he cowers deep in the subway tunnel until a strange encounter frees him to climb into the upper air and begin folding paper again.

All was well in the play’s revised version — some lovely details were added, some sound much improved — until the attack on PHG. Previously, the lead up to it had been so suspenseful, and the attack so brutal, that I had actually cried for a marionette. That’s gotten lost, as has the sense of the terrible shrinkage and compression of PHG’s life after the attack. The basics are still there, but the dramatic gut-punch has been revised away, which makes the subsequent sequence, involving an iron, seem silly rather than exhilarating. And then there is the bizarre introduction of an inexplicable white cloth worm (had I detoured into an old Ken Russell film, I wondered?) into the subway where PHG cowers. There is nothing else bright white or smooth in the production, and I found this thing so jarring visually and so mystifying that I could not stay engaged with the action. Instead of being delighted by PHG’s climb to the high open air, above it all and playing again, I was still worrying about that worm.

However, despite her having messed with perfection, Bend’s artwork is very much worth seeing. The visual pleasures are enormous, and this is an artist worth watching grow in whatever direction she chooses.

The Paper Hat Game continues through Saturday, November 3. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.