The documentary Marionette Land takes us into the eccentric world of Robert Brock. He’s a puppeteer who lives in an apartment above his marionette theater with his mother, Mary Lou, in Lancaster, PA. Brock is preparing for the 30th anniversary of the theater when disaster strikes in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Brock makes the marionettes himself and writes the shows, usually based on classics like Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz. He also arranges and sings the music. He demonstrates some of his numbers, which are composed of new lyrics to standards like “Oh Susannah.” Brock lives in a comfortable bubble of his productions, with all of the business concerns being handled by Mary Lou. She has looked after him and catered to his passions all of his life. He’s in his 60s now but still manages to look and sound a bit like Nathan Lane. He’s never been offered any of the TV or other roles he’s auditioned for, so his entire performance world is inside the marionette theater.
“…an effeminate, aging hermit who lives above a puppet theater.”
Marionette Land takes us through various productions Brock has mounted, and his shows were a great success. His shows were always well spoken of in Lancaster. There are several humorous OCD moments where Brock shares projects he thinks were failures. He loved the Peter Pan show, which is also his mother’s favorite, but he was unhappy with the design and materials used for the marionettes. He made them out of muslin, and now he says they don’t articulate correctly. Of course, the obvious answer would be to build new ones based on what he’s learned, but that option is never discussed.
It’s tempting to dismiss or poke fun at Brock. He’s an effeminate, aging hermit who lives above a puppet theater. It would be easy to see him as a deluded, isolated Gepetto, making his own children he can control and own. His story would be right at home in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. But if you look beyond the somewhat eccentric presentation, you’ll see an outsider artist who is committed to his work and has never strayed from the path. He reminds us of damaged genius Mark Hogancamp and his self-made refuge from reality, Marwencol.
Coming from Atlanta, where one of the gems of our city is the incredible Puppetry Arts Center, I know that puppetry is a viable art form, despite having fallen from popularity. The marionette theater presented here is a unique and wonderful art venue for Lancaster. Viewers will be engaged as Robert and Mary Lou Brock face their most significant challenges when the pandemic causes them to cancel shows and the theater goes dark. I would love to hear the story of how director Alexander Monelli learned about Brock and the marionette theater and what compelled him to make the film. How about a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of Marionette Land?
"…puppetry is a viable art form, despite having fallen from popularity."