nytheatre.com review by Todd Carlstrom
August 21, 2006
The central determining factor as to whether or not you will enjoy Small Appliance Puppet Theater's production Puppet Government, as it often is with any political theatre, is whether you line up with them ideologically. If you like President George W. Bush and believe in the Iraq War, it's definitely going to infuriate you. Of course, if you don't like W., you're likely already furious, and this show might be for you.
The basic premise of Puppet Government is a stroke of demented genius: Bush and his political appointees are "played" by household appliances that have been lovingly anthropomorphized with leftovers from a Mr. Potato Head. Some examples to illustrate: the POTUS himself is a googly-eyed electric can opener, a popcorn popper embodies former White House spokesman Scott McClellan, and Colin Powell is represented by a Dustbuster. I don't want to give too many away, as much of the show's savviest humor derives from the nexus of apparatus and apparatchik. The puppet design, by director Chris Humphrey, is definitely the show's strongest element. That they come apart at times is actually part of the piece's ramshackle charm.
The appliances are wont to express their deepest thoughts via the medium of "Weird Al" Yankovic-style song parodies, the lyrics of which are consistently inspired throughout. "Eye of the Tiger" becomes "I'm the Decider," and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney warp a Fiddler on the Roof classic into a tribute to extraordinary rendition.
The set (shrewdly designed by Ben Johnston and Chachalet) consists of a faux kitchen counter with a black curtain behind it, from which the cabinet members (clever double meaning, that) enter and exit. Though the stage belongs predominantly to fruit juicers and Cuisinarts, the puppeteers occasionally come around to portray human characters, the most effective of which is the Wrongco Appliance Salesman (played by Joe Bowen).
The action follows various events of the Bush presidency chronologically, but unfortunately, not much care is taken to string it together into a coherent plot. Humphrey and playwright Steve Barney seem content to gamble that clever repurposing of everyday gadgets and familiar songs will be enough to keep the audience engaged. Certainly, they do get a lot of mileage out of the show's main conceit, but I couldn't help wishing that as much creativity had been invested in the dialogue and story as had obviously gone into the puppets and music. Some non-musical scenes drag on, particularly the ones where no new puppets are introduced; some scenes peter out without any sense of resolution whatsoever. The climax of the play appears out of nowhere and isn't especially satisfying.
There is a lot to commend in Puppet Government, however, if you share the producers' political inclinations; after all, plot isn't necessarily what they're going for. After six years of the Bush administration, they need to vent, and all the better for the production. The performances are executed with giddy conviction; standouts include Paula Gilbert (who also assisted with puppet design) as Condoleezza Rice and Jeff Swearingen as McClellan and Rumsfeld.