by Rob DiCristinoAt The Drive-In returns with another celebration of creative chaos.
Few characters in cinema arrive on screen as fully-formed as Robert Brock, the co-founder and artistic director of central Pennsylvania’s Lancaster Marionette Theatre. We first meet Brock on stage, framed in red spectacles and shrouded in homemade fog, every bit the Man Behind the Curtain in his miniature production of The Wizard of Oz. A self-described “legend in his own mind,” he’s been the theater’s creative force since 1990 — he writes, directs, choreographs, and performs each thirty-five-minute engagement himself. The Lancaster’s diverse program of kid-friendly standards are his design, as well, not to mention the Grown-Ups Only cabaret revues that pay loving tribute to the likes of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. Now age 63, Brock is the best kind of old stage pro: He bleeds for his art. He builds puppets for his art. He squeezes into bustiers and fishnets for his art. Though he sometimes performs for audiences that number in the single digits, he never gives less than his best effort. Every moment on stage is sacred, even if that stage is only six feet wide.
Documentarian Alexander Monelli is quickly making a name for himself as a keen observer of the small human details that inspire grand creative undertakings. His last film (the wonderful At the Drive-In) was as much a love letter to the storied Mahoning Drive-in Theater as it was to the eccentric, multi-generational band of cincephiles that make up its staff. Marionette Land runs in a similar vein, with care taken to highlight the Lancaster Marionette Theatre’s significance to its community and the Brock family’s unwavering stewardship through the leanest years. And the years have been lean. Despite its austere trappings, the Lancaster has spent nearly its entire life on its back foot, and it seems to be only local donations and nonprofit designation that have kept it from the brink of financial ruin. This makes the film's final act, recorded in early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, one of the more heartbreaking in recent memory: Plans for a 30th anniversary gala are postponed indefinitely, and Brock is left scrambling to move his operation to YouTube.