Getting a Head

One moment, he's a huge-headed bass-like fish with pink lips; the next, he's a gentle giant on stilts. Then suddenly, he's the blue-bearded wind god. Michael Cooper transcends physical limits with his one-man Masked Marvels and Wondertales, which plays Sunday at the Lakewood Cultural Center.

"My show is an exercise in inspiration," says Cooper. "I'm just trying to remind the audience that creativity is our birthright."

Vignettes include "The Baby," in which Cooper appears in a baby's mask; it was inspired by the birth of his first child. In "The Horse," a horse's head juts from his torso; the segment honors his father, a traveling horse doctor who courted his mother on horseback and broke wild horses. "A lot of my show is inspired by my father and his love of animals," he says.

An artist, mask-maker, mime and storyteller, Cooper uses his large, handcrafted creations -- each takes about 150 hours to make -- to fashion autobiographical stories and mythical fables. (He used an old bicycle wheel to manufacture the spinning limbs of the wind creature.) "I think of myself as half sculptor and half performer, but I enjoy both tremendously," he says. His motto: Art from junk!

But the props are only part of the act: Cooper entertains with everything from funky stilt dancing and miming to audience participation during his hour-long show. And he does it all, including eight costume changes, without ever leaving the stage.

"I think it is one of the more intriguing parts of the show; audiences love to see transitions," Cooper explains. "And you have to have a lot of variety. I'm only one person, [so] to keep their attention, I have to have a pretty big bag of tricks."

Cooper lives in Maine with his wife and two children, and he spends about half the year touring the country with Masked Marvels. He's been adapting the show for almost thirty years, and he says he's always willing to take risks. That's the real man behind the mask.