Last night Kevin and I had the choice between seeing a National Theatre production of "Macbeth" or watching 30-year-old boys mutilating puppets in a performance titled "Famous Puppet Death Scenes," and I must confess, we went with the puppet death scenes. Without a doubt we made the better choice. I mean, you can see "Macbeth" anytime, right? But how often do you get to see a rubber puppet get his head beat in by a massive disembodied fist? During the 75-minute performance of "Famous Puppet Death Scenes" you get to see the latter at least four times -- and trust me, it gets funnier every time.
Although the concept may sound juvenile -- the stated objective of this production by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop was to "get rid of all the fussy plot business between the good bits" -- the performance was anything but. It was a mixture of of true marionette artistry and avant-garde performance art, with a healthy dose of slapstick mixed in (i.e. the repeated cranial punching).
In the "artistry" category, where sketches like "The Cruel Sea... Hour 14," which Kevin likened to a David Lynch movie. Here, a craggy old sea captain sits at the helm of his boat on a bitter North Sea night. The monotonous rocking of the sea and creaking of the boat is mind-numbing and goes on for what feels like forever, without any action, until the audience begins to squirm in their seats and think now might be a good time to take a bathroom break. Suddenly, bits of the captain's face crack off and float into the ether like the breakaway of an iceberg. Next, he loses an ear and then an arm. His steady erosion continues until there is nothing left but a stump of rough-hewn wood.
In the "performance art" category were sketches like "Why I Am So Sad ... by Sally," in which one of the puppeteers -- a grown man, mind you -- walks on stage with a Fisher-Price farm play set and begins to play with it as if he were a little girl, mooing like a cow, clucking like a chicken, and causing the farmer and the milkmaid to take a tumble in the hay. Suddenly, two more puppeteers emerge from the wings with cruel-looking little boy puppets strapped to their legs. These are Sally's brothers, and they proceed to wreck her bucolic fantasy with their swinging play-swords. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why Sally is so sad.
There were horror-story puppet deaths, and love-triangle puppet deaths. In one scene, two anatomically correct puppets dance around in the nude, as part of some extravagant courtship ritual, before one meets an untimely death, just short of his "goal." ("Famous Puppet Death Scenes" is no "Punch & Judy" show. It is not for children. The troupe's previous production, "The Unlikely Birth of Istvan," apparently included even more puppet sex and the "live birth of a baby puppet." You can watch scenes from this performance on the group's website here.) There were also arch satires making fun of French documentaries and German children's shows. Having sat through too many of both in European hotel rooms, I can attest to the fact that they were pitch perfect. And very funny.
Oddly enough, my favorite sketch had no puppetry at all, but was pure performance art. In "Never Say it Again," one of the puppeteers walks out on stage pushing a large wooden book. He opens the book, revealing pop-out scenes of a small dilapidated farm house. As he slowly turns the book's "pages," the farmhouse moves closer into view, and you begin to hear a commotion coming from within: A man is brutally beating his wife. Before the you get to the last page, though, the attack is over, and one or both members of the couple are dead. You never get to find out which. It was brilliant.
Now, I'm a big fan of puppetry, and on my previous sojourns in Europe, the birthplace of puppet theatre, I made it a point to take in as many shows as possible. I've paid forty euros for tourist traps like "Don Giovanni" in Prague, and fifty cents for sidewalk performances of "Pinnochio" in Florence, but nothing rivals the artistry, the creative hutzpah, of "Famous Puppet Death Scenes" -- and these puppet masters are born and breed Canadians, from my own adopted province of Alberta.
As Kevin put it after last night's performance: Anywhere that nurtures and retains artists like these can't be all bad. I hope he's right. I hope they're not just pulling my strings.