The Outer Puppets
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
April 30, 2009
I can't think of a better way to spend an hour than with fouled-mouthed puppets, horny glowworms, and sitting in a comfy chair that offers a media port via a protruding butt-plug. Okay, no, I didn't get to sit in the chair (sadly). The delightfully crude lounger is the centerpiece in the third and final one-act of The Outer Puppets, Richard Hinojosa's fast-paced, campy romp through the sci-fi genre. And what better way to romp than with puppets—ingeniously designed and superbly crafted by Hinojosa and Danielle Thorburn.
Almost immediately the production grabbed me with its warped, variety show appeal. There are two hosts for the evening's trilogy. One is an identity-conflicted robot that looks like a failed prototype for a '70s era humidifier. (The poor thing can't figure out how to use the hole in its bottom end.) The other is a sleazy, floating shrunken head-like thing. Their patter is used to good effect, setting the tongue-in-cheek humor of the stories, and keeping the energy alive during set changes.
We're first invited to watch Official Probe. It's a relatively simple plot about a scientist trying to sell his weapon of mass destruction to a rogue weapons buyer. The characters are portrayed by visually striking puppets—surrealistic, artful sculptures in human form. The head of the buyer is created around a gas nozzle, and the hose dangles like a loose esophagus. The scientist is mostly wires. His gangling fingers are often stroking his weapon with a perverse intimacy. The design of the weapon has a certain irony—it looks like a large chunk of glacial ice. And it might be sentient, if only because it behaves as if it is suffering from ADHD. The actors in this piece, as in all the others, skillfully work the movement of the puppets, and deliver the voices with a balance of character and comic texture. Director Jason Griffith ensures the intention of every movement while underscoring with a dark wit.
Hinojosa directs the second piece Pet Light Bulb. Lindsay MacNaughton plays "the pet owner" who's just arrived home with her new kitten-sized pet glowworm. It's a cute little bugger, but when it breaks in two, the two want to get it on and make three. Beyond that I'll say no more. I will say that MacNaughton is a marvelous actor. She is always engaging us with her quizzical expressions and comically off-kilter physicality. The set pieces that make up her apartment are three-dimensional drawings of life-size furniture (an evocative design by John Treanor). Hinojosa deftly captures the comedy of the set pieces with imaginative blocking. I still laugh when I think of MacNaughton emulating the sitting position. Who knew sitting could look so raunchy?
Butt-plugs, however, are unquestionably raunchy. And in Digi-Lounger they've also become a very efficient and comfortable way to interface with new media. Just sit down, relax, and connect (if that's the correct sequence, perhaps relax should be first). So who's the lucky person who connects? Well, after we have a moment to examine this new chair for a new future, out comes a gigantic puppet head along with a guy's body somewhere below it. It's a startling image, if not for the size then for the frozen expression he wears. It's something between bliss and brain dead, perhaps suggesting the face of our Facebook culture.
He gets quickly connected and comfortable (not his first time obviously), and reveals himself as a bit of a cipher. Hinojosa's language shines in this piece, offering clever turns of phrases, and the quirky, elliptical thoughts of someone under the spell of technology-induced solipsism. A cockroach interrupts his bottom-to-top interface, and in the end, to what he's connected is a creepy, crawly mystery.
The Outer Puppets is busting at the seams from its tremendous volume of creative juices. I left the theater feeling invigorated by the designs, the rich wit, the smart and playful performances, and not least because of the seductively immersive score played live by musicians Naa Koshie Mills, Dan Sullivan and Beth Thomason. If I were to look at the work from on high I would write about its examination of our destructive urge to outclass our mere humanness. But that wouldn't do justice to the work's ribald spirit. So as a mere human I'll just say: This is one cool, rockin' show.