Hope and jokes abound in puppet theater

Donna Correa, puppeteer and owner of the Little

Donna Correa, puppeteer and owner of the Little Feet Puppet Theater in Coram, helps the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood shake hands with Sophia Cantillo, age 2, after the puppet show. (April 20, 2013) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

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The lights go down, and the marionettes glow under the black light set, telling the story of Neon, who sets out to save a princess from a mean, green dragon in the Forbidden Forest. Luminous, Princess Florescence's trusty handmaiden, urges Neon to go to the forest to save the princess after the royal warriors run out of the woods in fear.

The story, the marionettes -- even the theater itself -- were created by Donna Correa, a former house cleaner from Coram who pretty much gave up her job after being diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago. She decided then to find a more meaningful way to make a living. She started making stained-glass creations, and then learned how to paint oils and watercolors.

"I never painted before," Correa, 53, says. "It took me having cancer to find my passion."

Soon, with the help of her carpenter boyfriend, Chris Gartung, 52, with whom she lives, Correa came by the idea of making marionettes. That's led to the opening this month of her puppet theater, a tour de force for the burgeoning artist.

"I never dreamed of being a marionette maker," Correa explains. "But I see life as yin-yang. Out of something bad will come something good."

MAKING OF A SHOW

The story of Neon is full of redemption and hope, about telling people you love them and the power one person's goodness has to save another. But it's a comedy, too, filled with silly jokes.

The cast of "Neon's World" is a family affair. Correa's two daughters, Tina Cantillo, 22, also of Coram, and Felicia Cantillo, 29, of Selden, help with the marionettes as well as doing some of the character voices, as does Felica's boyfriend, Robert Huber, 34, also of Selden. Gartung also plays the hilariously laid-back wolf in the day's second show, "Little Red Riding Hood."

The one small boy in the audience for the theater's opening day performance laughed when the warriors ran from the forest, as well as at the wolf. Abram Pimentel, 6, of Hauppauge, there with his parents, nods enthusiastically when asked if he liked the puppet show.

"I think they will do well," his mother, Jessica Pimentel, says as Abram shyly hides his face behind her.

In fact, the audience for the debut of "Neon's World" was sparse -- just some family members and the Pimentel family. Correa has done little advertising, and says she wants to make the outside of the theater more appealing to draw more customers.

Indeed, the nondescript outside of the storefront on busy Route 112 could cause most to drive by. But it belies the cheery green and yellow theater inside. The walls are lined with marionettes, the small stage has lush gold lamé curtains, and there are comfortable homemade benches to hold at least 30 audience members.

After the shows, which last about 45 minutes, Correa and her family bring out the marionettes to show the children.

"I live to see their faces when I throw the wolf on their laps," Correa says with a laugh. "I think we are at a point where we are trying to get back to traditional things -- simplicity -- but don't know where to go."

Little Feet Productions

WHEN | WHERE "Neon's World" at 2, 3:30, and 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 3455 Rte. 112, Coram

INFO 631-736-5121

ADMISSION $8 ($5 younger than 12)

For more puppet shows

Two other, more established, places to see live puppet theater:

Long Island Puppet Theater

WHEN | WHERE About 10 shows a week Fridays-Mondays, 10 Heitz Place, Hicksville

INFO 516-932-5469, lipuppet.com

ADMISSION $13

The theater, on Long Island 15 years, offers new shows: "Little Red Riding Hood With the Three Little Pigs and Seven Baby Goats," an original script based on a traditional tale; "It's a Whole New World," a reworking of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and "The Wizard of Oz."

Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre

WHEN | WHERE Various dates (call ahead) until July, when the regular season starts, at 4 Hampton St., Sag Harbor.

INFO 631-725-4193, goatonaboat.org

ADMISSION $10 ($5 younger than 3)

The theater holds many puppet-related craft programs for children during the spring and summer. Among the upcoming shows are Bonnie Duncan's "Squirrel Stole My Underpants," Puppets in Prague's version of "Snow White" and founder-director Liz Joyce's own rendition of "The Princess, the Frog and the Pea."

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