NO LONGER considered the exclusive province of children, puppetry has entered the world of adults.

From a simple napkin to elaborate larger-than-life creations, puppets have breathed wondrous new life into film, theater, opera and other genres, for works ranging from the mainstream to the avant-garde. With artists crossing geographic and aesthetic borders more and more, puppetry has been spurred on by events such as the biennial (Jim) Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre and from cultures with long and honorable puppet traditions.

“Puppetry offers something in the context of our times,” says Basil Twist, a native San Franciscan whom Time recently crowned America’s Best Puppeteer. “Puppetry is so old-fashioned. As we get more and more modern and digital — there’s something so really magical about a live performance and the magic puppetry offers.”

Despite its ancient history, within the United States puppetry had been generally relegated to family sideshows and kids’ parties. But now the art form has reached the glittering stratosphere of the Great White Way and Tinseltown.

Its most resounding commercial success to date has been Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King.” Hollywood pulled strings in the 1997 Spike Jonze film “Being John Malkovich,” in which John Cusack’s character becomes the ultimate puppeteer by becoming the titular actor.

In the last few years in the Bay Area, puppets have found their way on-stage for a number of productions. San Francisco Opera’s 1997 rendition of “Das Rheingold” involved two 15-foot-tall puppets representing Fasolt and Fafner. Broadway successes such as “Green Bird” and “Jackie: An American Life” enthralled their respective audiences at the Berkeley Rep and Willows theaters, while ACT brought to wooden life the gruesome German cautionary fairy tales in “Shockheaded Peter.”

Innovative moves

At Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Italian commedia dell’arte and Indonesian wayang puppetry intersected to produce innovative street performance in “The King Stag.” Indonesian shadow puppets alone have been riding dual waves of puppet and Asian popularity.

Twist’s own success has prompted the puppet ambassador to take a quick visit back to the Bay Area, where he’ll be reviving his “The Araneidae Show and Other Pieces” for four nights at Noh Space in San Francisco.

In 1999, Twist, who now resides in New York, found success with “Peter and Wendy,” the New York-based Mabou Mines’ production, and “Symphony Fantastique,” his 1,000-gallon underwater fantasy that defied explanation but sucked in audiences during its 18-month off-Broadway run and tour. This past May, in his latest achievement, “Petrushka,” commissioned by the Lincoln Center in New York, Twist re-created the classic love triangle of the clown, the Moor and the ballerina using eight other puppeteers.

Twist conceived “The Araneidae Show and Other Pieces” in 1994. The 31-year-old can’t quite describe the show, but parental discretion is advised. All he can say is that the stage of Las Vegas showgirls, lonely streets, “copulating cats” and a spinning spider is based on personal memories and dream images.

“The Araneidae Show” emerged when he was enrolled in the Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in France, one of the premiere puppetry schools in the world. As the first American accepted into the rigorous three-year program, he created the piece as “an expression of my Americanism.”

“I’m no good at explaining it,” he says of the memories that spawned this odd assortment of characters. “So that’s why I made a show.”

What he definitely can say is how relieved he is to be doing a small one-man show once again, and here in his hometown. Born in Chicago, Twist grew up in San Francisco’s Richmond District. His pull to puppetry was inescapable in some ways: His mother was part of an amateur troupe that performed at birthday parties and hospitals. He frequently visited the Cannery to be among the crowd of children and adults roaring with laughter at local puppeteer Bob Hartman. Twist loved the Muppets (which incidentally celebrate their silver anniversary this month), and had posters of the provocative Miss Piggy.

By the time he was 10, he was using his handmade puppets in school reports. That’s when he received a set of puppets that had belonged to his grandfather, a big-band leader who occasionally used the puppets to “lead” his orchestra.

“That kind of sealed the deal,” recalls Twist, whose maternal grandfather died before he was born. “It sort of connected me to a legacy in a family.”

Drama of illusion

Twist is among many emerging artists who are using puppetry to explore complex adult themes. At this year’s San Francisco Fringe Festival, six out of the 53 works involved puppetry. One was a return visit by Liebe Wetzel, co-founder of Oakland’s Lunatique Fantastique.

Instead of working with human forms, Wetzel draws out the secret lives of ordinary objects like brooms and napkins. She made puppets at one point, but realized her time was better spent building the drama of her illusions.

Her troupe, Lunatique Fantastique, performs G-rated skits such as “Another Wrapping Paper Caper,” now playing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Other works are strictly for mature audiences, such as the critically acclaimed “Snake in the Basement: The Prosecution of Rev. Bill Pruitt,” inspired by the story of a Texas church authority accused of molesting children (one of which was Wetzel herself). In this year’s Fringe Festival, Wetzel performed a piece for all ages: “Brace Yourself” told the tale of childhood polio using items such as shoes, a crutch, a Bundt pan and a spatula.

“I love writing for adults,” she says. “I love the experience of actually trying to take puppetry, object theater — I’m not sure what to call what we do — and make it a longer form, not just a three- or five-minute vignette.”

A bit of history

Adult subject matter in puppetry is hardly new. Political fodder that was the stuff of Punch and Judy shows resurfaced with the 1960s Bread and Puppet Theater, whose Central Park skits revolved around the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Andrew Holtz, general manager of the Willows Theatre in Concord, says they made “aggressive political statements,” but because puppets uttered them, people would listen.

The mix of puppets and live actors helped audiences sit through potshots taken at America’s royal family in the enormously successful “Jackie: An American Life.” “The puppets helped the audience step out of ‘reality,'” Holtz says. For instance, Jackie’s father-in-law, patriarch Joe Kennedy, ended up being a 14-foot pair of pants.

“Joe Kennedy was so widely known throughout the world as this larger-than-life figure and this great man,” says artistic director Richard Elliott. “I thought, ‘What better way to characterize him than nothing more than a pair of pants?'” With the character’s voice booming from the roof, it became a “Jack and the Beanstalk” routine. “The audience instantly got that.”

Puppet paradox

Jarring audiences out of the familiar lets them enter another dimension of imagination. In Victor Lodato’s “The Eviction,” due in February at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, the multiple interior voices of a mentally ill man are given expression not by offstage disembodied actors, but through puppets.

“The play itself is an imaginative leap into the mind and the life of someone we pass every day on the street. It’s someone most of us reckon with in various ways but don’t get into their heads,” explains Magic Theatre artistic director Larry Eilenberg. The puppet “allows forces which are psychological to be given palpable form.”

At once distancing and penetrating, the puppet can go where human beings fear to tread. “We’re not worried about the physical being of the puppet, we’re not worried about the puppet being abused or really hurt or psychologically impaired. The puppet actually has a greater latitude to experience different things without incurring our worry,” explains Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone. “The puppet can capture our imagination.”

No harm done

In a way, the puppet verges on immortality. “It can fly and take a kick in the head and lose its arm,” Eilenberg says. “It can bear amplification and violence, which allow us to know that no real harm is being done, yet register the excess.”

Mime-trained Wetzel almost envies that indestructibility. “I remember feeling really frustrated with the limitations of my body,” she admits. “Actors can’t take bodies apart.” The freedom of objects to spring to life, break down and magically reassemble, however, frees Wetzel and those who watch her. Puppetry takes audiences right up to the wonder of what is life, a sense of awe the puppeteer shares as well.

“The greatest skill of the puppeteer is not so much they can move things well or build things well, it’s that they actually believe in what they’re doing,” Twist says. “When it’s really going good, I feel like I’m just there watching. I’m watching something that’s alive. I’m not doing it, I’m not making it happen.”

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.