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Puppets in Hell

Rash acts ravish Arcata Playhouse



The Independent Eye's Mythic Kitchen troupe, based in Sebastopol, returned to the North Coast last weekend for two shows at the Arcata Playhouse. With this version of their Rash Acts, they were trying something new, more or less. They've used puppets before -- co-founder Elizabeth Fuller, who brought her show Dream House to the Playhouse a couple of summers ago, said that people still remember their puppet version of Macbeth from 1979. But after 35 years of eclectic experimentation, Fuller and partner Conrad Bishop decided to focus on integrating puppets in their new work from now on. As a step in that direction, they combined actors and various kinds and sizes of puppets to revisit five stories they've done in the past as non-puppet theatre.

Puppetry is an ancient and cross-cultural element in theatre, and was present at the creation of commedia dell'arte. The world-weary puppet introducing Rash Acts mentions the memory of familiar American puppets gone by, like Howdy Doody and Kermit the Frog. His bitter patter clues us in to the expectations we may be dealing with as the evening progresses. Because the un-cute and non-madcap message of the evening might be that it's not easy being mortal. Hey, kids -- what time is it? It's Howdy Apocalypse time!

The current economic tailspin plus the usual angst-producing suspects (war, Big Macs, strip malls, cancer) are front and center in the first piece, "Alice in Wonder." It's a riff on Lewis Carroll, with a sci-fi feel (Borg voices, Forbidden Planet sound effects) -- although the White Rabbit is an airport security scanner out of the Marx Brothers (or reality), the Caterpillar has given up smoking, and the Queen is male (because being Queen is a man's job).

Alice is a childhood doll rediscovered by her grown-up owner as she packs up to leave her foreclosed house, and is tossing out "crap I've had for years, like hope and expectations ... This is not one of those mythic underworld journeys. This is just going to hell." Alice is eventually consigned to the Goodwill. The woman's one remaining hope is to plant some seeds (farming and growing stuff as the only good thing left seems common to several of the stories), but she can't, she's moving. Not a cheery story, but with a homemade feeling of a child playing dolls in her room.

"Reach Out and Touch" concerns a recent widower bedeviled by telemarketers at mealtime; "Freeway" is a Firesign Theatre/Doctor Who fantasy of a couple that gets on the freeway and 40 years later finally finds the Big Rest Stop. This one had some interesting, dance-like interactions between the two puppets and the human couple animating them. "Big Mama's Baby" is an unsubtle but cleverly detailed allegory of white civilization as a spoiled child wrecking the planet, until the volcanic Big Mama Earth snuffs him. He wasn't all bad, though -- he left behind the "Ode to Joy."

"The Shadow Queen," which features some very nice shadow theatre work, provided at least the choice of something hopeful: Art as a kind of resurrection, offered as an alternative ending. But relentless mortality and screwed-up people trashing the planet were common themes, as startling lines zinged by among those that sounded more conventionally cynical.

The puppets and costumes are striking. Personally, I have trouble relating to puppets when the puppeteer is visible. I guess most people focus on the puppet anyway, but I keep looking at the person -- I gravitate towards facial expression and where the voice is coming from. It's like a movie with subtitles: I wind up reading more than watching. But when I could focus on the puppets, I still found that, except for a couple of moments, they tended to mute emotional connection rather than strengthen it. Maybe a certain alienation effect is intended, or inevitable. Even when they aren't obviously grotesque, there's always been a certain creepy quality about puppets. In any case, given the content, it was a disquieting evening. Ruefully funny, too, though not exactly Kermit and Howdy time.

Coming Up: Next weekend is a busy one at the Arcata Playhouse, with physical comedy in The Cody Rivers Show on Thursday (Feb. 26), Cal Pritner from New York doing Mark Twain on Friday, and a cabaret fundraiser for Coastal Grove Charter School students on Saturday ... Sanctuary Stage does The Vagina Monologues on Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Aunty Mo's Lounge in Eureka, benefiting local organizations. It includes two monologues never performed in Humboldt before.

Opening on Thursday and playing two weekends in HSU's Gist Hall Theatre is the winner of the tri-annual New Plays Season national competition at HSU, Jagun Fly by John Oluwole ADEkoje, an HSU playwriting graduate who is establishing a promising career in Boston. It's that Humboldt rarity: A play about Africa and America written by an African American, with an African American cast. (Standard disclaimer: I have professional and personal relationships to HSU theatre, so I will not review it here.)

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