Paul Berthalet, a dancer with a war wound that leaves him unable to perform, might be comfortable in the modern Internet age where people post their feelings from a distance at websites, Facebook and Twitter.
Instead, Paul is the dark and complex puppeteer in the musical theater production "Carnival," set in post-World War I France, who can only express his secret love for the innocent orphan Lili through his puppets.
Wichita State University students and faculty will perform the musical today through Sunday in Wilner Auditorium on the school's campus.
"Carnival" is based on the short story "The Man Who Hated People" that was first made into a movie and later a musical in 1961. Lili is a homeless girl with no family who visits the circus in search of a job. Initially she falls in love with the flashy magician, Marco the Magnificent, who dazzles her with a magic trick.
At first Lili dislikes the seemingly angry Paul, but is won over by his warm and kind puppets — Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite and Reynardo the Fox — before she realizes Paul is the puppeteer.
"Lili ... represents the ability to retain a certain childlike innocence about the world," said Wayne Bryan, producing director of Music Theatre of Wichita who is guest director of "Carnival." "Lili is a girl who comes from a small town, who is very inexperienced. ... She manages to survive in a world that has not been friendly to her."
Paul "is embittered about his experiences and his nature is pessimistic and angry and, yet, his depth is revealed through the characters he creates and his ability to improvise sweetly and comically with this young girl who comes and talks to the puppets as though they were real people," Bryan said.
Like Paul, some people today try to hide their feelings and identities behind a medium where they feel safe, he said. "Today we have Facebook, today we have people who will write anonymously in cyberspace or pretend to be somebody they aren't, and you can get away with it because you're not face-to-face."
The puppets are controlled by Matt Elliott and Jacob January, two musical theater students who had to learn puppetry for the roles and who create voices for each puppet in addition to their characters in the show.
"Certainly a good actor can learn to do a lot of things," Bryan said. The actors are adept at expressing emotions through the faces and movements of the puppets.
This is only the second production Bryan has directed for Wichita State. He says he has been drawn to "Carnival" since seeing the movie as a child.
Its themes of alienation and finding one's true self keep the story relatable to modern audiences, he said, but it's the puppets that make the show a favorite from Broadway's golden era.
Even in rehearsals, Bryan said, the cast comes out and sits in the auditorium when the puppets take the stage. "It's quite extraordinary how different that is," he said, "than seeing two actors face each other. ... There's something really quite magical about it."