by LIZ PANTING, guest reviewer
Are you ever at the theatre and feel bored before the curtain goes up? Do you find yourself thinking all plays are starting to look the same? Go see a PuppetLab show at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Something in it will take you off guard, whether it is a wordless piece with electronic music playing throughout, day-glow bunnies having an orgy, or a giant anvil being dropped on a tiny turtle.
In the Heart of the Beast has an annual program for new puppet artists that sets them up with a mentor and supports them while they develop a new show whose goal is to “push outward at the limit of figure theatre”. The 2013 PuppetLab features four artists’ pieces over six shows, with two pieces showcased each night.
The first show I saw was Lepus Nacht: A Night in the Warren, created by Benjamin Brockman. The concept of Lepus Nacht is that in a post-apocalyptic world, only rabbits and mutant plans have survived, and the rabbits roam about and develop a new sort of world order. The dark stage, electronic music, television screens depicting nuclear holocaust, and a set covered in neon black-light paint made for a wildly unsettling experience. As a series of increasingly large and aggressive rabbits enter and exit the stage, the viewer learns that, just as in our world, this new world has a definite pecking order, and the rabbits seem to obey some sort of higher power. Lepus Nacht tells an eerie story that feels like a warning, although frequently this message is obscured by, say, neon puppet rabbits engaging in a feverish orgy to techno music.
The puppets are impressive, but at times it is hard to focus on them and not the black-clad puppeteers carrying them around stage; like looking at a Magic Eye, sometimes I could see only the puppets, and sometimes I could only see the puppeteers. The presence of puppeteers walking across the stage, obvious in their black outfits in front of a neon set, makes one very aware that this is a story being told, and is not an experience you can sink into.
The second piece on opening night was Cartooon by Steve Ackerman. This one starts off on a much lighter note; it is a presentation of the one and only episode ever made of a controversial 1940s cartoon called “Tommy da Talking Turtle Sucks on Piano Keys”. Narrated from start to finish, the piece features four musicians, a maestro, a four-person chorus, and five puppeteers. This is clearly parody; it mocks the ridiculous violence of cartoons like The Roadrunner, as well as the tricks of puppet shows, in turn creating one of the funniest cartoons-as-told-by-puppets you can imagine. Tommy the talking turtle engages in fast-paced hijinx with his nemesis Crackjaw the alligator. Exploding cupcakes, human (well, turtle) cannonballs, falling pianos, pools full of piranhas, and giant sticks of dynamite ensue.
The shenanigans escalate in scale, until things have spiraled so far out of control that the puppeteers are running around the entire theatre maniacally and the narrator is yelling what may be nonsense but may be political commentary. Was this meant to be wild, crazy hilarity? Or was this meant to be a criticism of excess and American culture? This was unclear, but it was an entertaining experience either way.
This year’s PuppetLab is a fascinating experience and unlike most other things you will see on other stages. It is sometimes eerie, sometimes amusing, and sometimes confusing, but always interesting. This may be a puppet show, but it is most certainly not for kids, nor for those who prefer the status quo. But if you want something that will leave you asking, “What just happened!?” check this out. Plus, you may get a sugary snack at intermission!
These two shows are running March 1-3; I didn’t see the other two pieces, I have filthy habits by Eben Kowler and Five Rules For Walking by Rosie Jablonsky, which will run March 8-10.
The PuppetLab is produced at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 East Lake St, Minneapolis, March 1-3 and 8-10. Tickets $12, but no one turned away for lack of funds. Box office: 612-721-2535 or www.hobt.org