LENOX, Mass. – Ralph Lee, one of New York’s most celebrated puppeteers and mask designers, passed away at his home in Manhattan on May 12, at the age of 87. Shakespeare & Company, a theater performance, training, and education outfit based in Lenox, Mass., is home to many of Lee’s original masks — and the collection is receiving both new attention and use following news of the artist’s passing.
Costume Designer Kiki Smith remembers Lee’s work at Shakespeare & Company began more than 40 years ago when he designed an array of masks for the ball scene in Romeo and Juliet. These masks have been featured and adapted in many subsequent productions at Shakespeare & Company, including the 2023 Northeast Regional Tour of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Kevin G. Coleman.
And this season, two Ralph Lee masks will feature in Shakespeare & Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening on August 1 and directed by Allyn Burrows, outdoors at the New Spruce Theatre.
“In looking at these masks close-up, I can still see typical Ralph Lee,” said Smith. “Beautiful curves. Elegant, graceful designs. Details. Little air holes around the eye sockets here… And the gilding has such dimension and care that only Ralph Lee could do.”
Lee was also widely known for his “Land Shark” costume, which ate cast members of Saturday Night Live during the 1970s. He also originated the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, an enduring tradition that featured his masks and giant puppets. As an actor, he appeared on Broadway and off-Broadway and was a member of the Open Theatre.
As Artistic Director of Mettawee River Theatre Company, Lee directed and designed dramatizations of myths, folk tales, and legends from around the world. He championed accessibility in performance by staging works in public places, often free of charge. His masks and puppets were featured at many theater and dance companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, as well as Shakespeare & Company.
“He just knew theatricality,” added Smith. “He knew what needed to happen for an actor to make the mask elemental and powerful, better than anybody else I’ll ever know. So I’m so sad to lose him. Very grateful I had the chance to work with him.”
One of Ralph Lee’s most recognized — and most used — masks, part of the Sun Collection, at Shakespeare & Company. Photo by Eran Zelixon.
For a better look at these masks by Ralph Lee, Shakespeare & Company has created a video featuring many of his designs that are part of its collection.
Photo caption: A Ralph Lee mask in action during an outdoor production at Shakespeare & Company. Photo by Olivia Winslow.
About Shakespeare & Company
Shakespeare & Company was founded in 1978 by Tina Packer. Located in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Company offers performance, education, and actor-training opportunities year-round, and attracts more than 40,000 patrons annually with a core of more than 150 artists.