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Puppets are more than sum of their parts

``Gene Splice and the Davis Square Roots" just got a gig as the pit orchestra for a new theater tucked inside the Willoughby & Baltic art gallery in Davis Square. They perform for the first time Saturday at Artbeat, quite an accomplishment for a band that has just been pieced together, literally, from clock parts, fishing weights, and servo motors.

A miniature robotic puppet orchestra, ``Gene Splice" and friends was created as part of a new marionette theater at the gallery.

The whole group -- Tingle on sax, Mike on guitar, Jonny D on trombone, to name a few (and yes, they're all named for Davis Square businesses) -- comes to life when gallery director Meredith Garniss's computer signals the 56 motors that move cams below the puppet stage. Eyes blink open and shut, mouths synch to rockabilly tunes, and the mighty drummer Spike, with a springy rubber Mohawk, pounds away.

All the members of the band, sculpted from clay or molded plastic strips, have life stories that will go into the theater's playbill.

Spike, says Garniss, ``used to be in a heavy metal band."

Until a year ago, puppets hadn't crossed Garniss's mind. Trained in both computer programming and art, Garniss opened Willoughby & Baltic gallery in 2004 to show her paintings.

When she noticed mothers bringing their children in to see art, she says, ``I wanted to do something for the kids, so they'd know this place is okay for them, too."

Other puppeteers warned her, however.

``They told me . . . `You can't just throw a puppet show together,' " Garniss said. ``And I thought, `Yes, you can.' I eventually realized how ignorant I was about puppetry. It's extremely involved."

So she got help. Engineer and kinetic artist Jim Sedgwick lent electronic expertise, puppeteers from the Brookline Puppet Showplace Theatre taught her to string marionettes, and artist Adrian Tans built an elegant, red-velvet-curtained, 3-foot-by-5-foot puppet stage.

Using Czech marionettes as models, Garniss made her figures 12 inches to 20 inches tall, manipulated from above and behind the stage.

In August, she'll put on the theater's first full show, ``Frankenfood," for 30 marionettes, with original music written especially for ``Gene Splice" and friends.

Garniss's monster in the show is bioengineered food; the puppet has a sculpted tomato head rudely stitched to an eggplant body with celery arms.

``He's really sweet," she says. ``It's a little more about putting the ethics of science in context than a monster story."

``Gene Splice and the Davis Square Roots" will perform at the Elm St. Plaza, Saturday, noon-1 p.m. as part of Artbeat. Tickets for ``Frankenfood," premiering Aug. 12 at 10:30 a.m., are on sale at Willoughby & Baltic Gallery, 195G Elm St., 617-501-0197 or at Lesley Bannatyne can be reached at

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