Spoiler alert: The whale dies. Edward Grue who dressed as a deer dies. The squattish bald man in his business tie dies. In Famous Puppet Death Scenes, produced by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop of Alberta, Canada, and presented at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, no puppet is spared the inevitable.
And I’m not pulling your strings when I suggest you catch this show while it’s in Washington.
Nathanial Tweak, our host for the evening, reminds us of the “rash and brutal circumstances” we are about to witness in the subsequent twenty-two puppet deaths. Tweak himself is a frail, elder puppet, with spindly toothpick limbs and a shock of Einstein hair. Sort of a lovechild of Kermit and Yoda–but age-worn, tired, and not so plush. He comes back, now and again, to remind us of the brave wooden creatures that “stare unblinking into the face of mortality” for our cruel entertainment.
We cross through an entire universe of puppet death, a veritable cornucopia of puppet styles and personalities as well of narrative demise. We meet puppets of all stripes, puppets on strings, puppets whose mechanics are unseen and unknown, characters who range from outlandish and ridiculous to disturbingly realistic. (I could have sworn one puppet was actually breathing. At least until she wasn’t.)
All of this is to the credit of the Old Trouts – Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes, and Viktor Lukawski as the talent voicing and manipulating the puppets, Tim Sutherland as the original production director, and Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer as directors of this remount.
The astonishingly detailed design—most suited for the puppet stage, a space that can’t be larger than 5 by 3 feet—brings this quickly out of the realm of the juvenile and into the exquisite. Equally significant to the success of this production are the soundscapes (Mike Rinaldi) and lighting design (Cimmeron Meyer), which possess such nuance and specificity that each moment of puppet death is truly a microcosm of that small wooden life.
It’s true that the audience laughed its way through the 80 minutes of puppet deaths. And it’s also true that by the halfway mark (if not sooner), anyone watching must confront the oddity and self-conscious discomfort of laughing at death. As the good Mr. Tweak tells us, “these are no mere blocks of wood that suffer before you.” And while many of the scenes are comedic, it’s the somber ones that pull us back to examine the deeper tones of Famous Puppet Death Scenes—the connective thread of mortality and how we grapple with it, how we might be remembered.
The remarkable thing about Famous Puppet Death Scenes is just how much the Old Trouts accomplish in such a small space. That’s both literally and figuratively—because just as they perform most of the puppet deaths on the miniature puppet stage, they’re also operating deftly inside the constraints of the show’s theme. But from constraint comes creative brilliance, and so we are faced not only with the existential musings we might extract from puppet mortalities, but also a staggering diversity of styles, narratives, and aesthetics throughout the miniature death scenes.
From a large and solitary semi-realistic whale eye that fills the puppet stage moments before its passing, to a middle-aged office puppet who (like Little Bunny Foo Foo) can’t escape getting bopped on the head by a massive fist, to a man puppeteering the figurines on the Fisher Price farmhouse every child of the 80s or 90s will remember, Famous Puppet Death Scenes runs the puppet gamut. Marionettes, muppets, hand puppets, and several devised so specifically that they might not have technical names yet all coexist happily here. (Until they less happily cease to exist.)
FAMOUS PUPPET DEATH SCENES
Closes January 4, 2015
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
“Das Bipsy Und Mumu Puppenspiel” stands out as one of the more memorable scenes for its absurdity. It’s positioned like a kids’ show—in Germany—with a splash of Europop and disco lighting to reiterate the location. Bipsy and Mumu are triangle-beings for the preverbial set, and in trying to demonstrate to the youngsters on the other side of the television the meaning of ja und nein, they both are eaten by a dragon. It’s deus ex machina, pure and simple. And (sorry Bipsy, sorry Mumu) it’s hilarious.
In contrast, another scene is told entirely by turning the pages of a massive wooden book, detailed in intricate rural landscapes and pop-up elements. As the pages turn, we hear what can only be described as the soundscape of domestic abuse. The pages bring us closer and closer to the house producing these sounds. But once we reach the door, the puppeteer turning the pages simply shakes his head, steps away, and slams the book shut.
In many ways, yes, this production is everything its title promises. You will see puppets dying. Lots of them, in fact. Yet don’t dismiss this as something purely morbid or fluffy. There is grace here, and levity, and meaning. And it just might be the most unique show in town.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes from Old Trout Puppet Workshop . Directed by Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer . Featuring Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes, and Viktor Lukawski . Soundscapes: Mike Rinaldi . Lighting design: Cimmeron Meyer . Presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.
FAMOUS PUPPET DEATH SCENES
Closes Jan 4
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway isn’t for everyone, but audiences interested in something unusual will find a lot to appreciate here.
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade this cleverly rendered puppet show for grownups compellingly addresses life’s big mystery — not love, but the eternal dirt nap — in a way that’s not the least bit depressing.
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly under and around the laughs, there flows a gentle but penetrating contemplation of death — the living with it, the waiting for it, and the way in which bearing witness to it becomes a rehearsal for our own.
Chris Klimek . City Paper it’s too wickedly gratifying to miss.
Peter Marks . Washington Post the Old Trouts are better at coming up with scenarios than knowing where to take them
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide teens hip to the sardonic wallop of Monty Python will appreciate where it’s all coming from and will, like the adults, “care as much as possible.”
David Siegel . DCMetroTheaterArts For me the evening was inspired and transgressive, concluding with two final skits of such poignancy, I thought I was truly in a house of worship