Trouble Puppet Theater mines our darker impulses to satirical affect


To make a pair of simply crafted cloth and wooden puppets fight requires six people.

Twelve hands grasp pillowed puppet limbs, steer tiny feet capped with papier-mâché shoes, and manipulate cartoonish heads by dowls.

The puppeteers perform a strange ballet all their own, deftly reaching and twisting around each other, in continuous quick movement as they rehearse “The Crapstall Street Boys,” the new production by Trouble Puppet Theater running through March 15 at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

A puppet’s inanimacy only demands that it become extra animate on stage — all its movement exaggerated, its gestures outsized, its wriggling and fidgeting constant.

At the rehearsal Connor Hopkins — Trouble Puppet producing artistic director, author of “The Crapstall Street Boys” and more than a dozen other original puppet plays — reminds the puppeteers to keep the puppets capering around.

“Make (the boys) shake every time say ‘yay.’ Even if they’re about to be told they’re not getting any food, they don’t know that yet, so they’re happy. For now,” Hopkins says.

Like all Trouble Puppet shows, “Crapstall” is darkly humorous, a satirical fairy tale of sorts. It’s rough, raucous and sometimes violent though puppet-on-puppet violence is difficult to categorize as specifically gory.

(By way of addressing whether the show is appropriate for children, Trouble Puppet producers offer this statement: “Made for grownups, this show will entertain children mature enough to sit through a feature-length production (approximately 1.25 hours). There is a fair amount of Trouble Puppet’s hallmark grotesquerie (decapitations, monsters, etc.). There may be some crude humor.”)

Hopkins’ aesthetic is consciously elemental and unpretentious, distinguished by a use of simple materials. His Czech rod marionettes and bunraku-style puppets (table-top dolls manipulated by rods) are stitched, glued and tacked together by hand from wood, undyed muslin, scrap fabric, wire, string and doll eyes. Heads, shoes and props are papier-mâché. Backdrop sets are made from simple lumber and paint and set atop rolling knee-high tables the puppeteers glide on and off as scenes change.

That aesthetic of quotidian materials serves Hopkins’s tale well.

A Dickensian tale set in a post-industrial world where the denizens of a grimy, polluted, resource-deprived city are terrorized each night by human-eating monsters, “The Crapstall Street Boys” chronicles the tale of You Lad, so named because his swinish parents have neglected to name him at all.

Like everyone in this dark dystopia, You Lad’s parents are consumed by their desire to consume even more, brainwashed to believe that they must buy the very latest anti-monster protection technology — the newest Household Weapon for Monster Defense, or Household WMD — even if it means selling their son to the workhouse.

And yet for all the basics of its production aesthetic, for this show Hopkins has recruited video designer and photographer Christopher Own to create dramatic projections that hang as backdrops. And for some scenes a puppet is crowned with a tiny live-feed video camera, bursts of footage projected on the large screen, offering a startling puppet-scale perspective of the action.

Hopkins presented a short version of “The Crapstall Street Boys” in 2012 as part of the Frontera Fest fringe theater happening.

But the story, Hopkins explained recently while building puppets in the Trouble Puppet glue gun-filled workshop, was not then as fully flushed out as he wanted.

“Capitalism and cannibalism,” Hopkins shrugs. “Seems like a natural metaphor — and perfect for puppets.”

The “Crapstall” world is where the basest appetite to consume more and more drives all behavior, personally and politically. Hopkins said stories of America’s westward expansion and of the philosophy Manifest Destiny in which a sense of special privilege and exceptionalism motivated settlers to conquer new territory fueled his creativity.

“Making a mad leap for something new, heading off some place that you believe is better when what you have already or to embark on an epic odyssey that ends with tragedy — what does that say about us?” Hopkins asks.

Such fundamental moral and political questioning are a Trouble Puppet hallmark.

Connor and company in the past have created satirical, charged shows including Guy Fawkes-inspired “The Gunpowder Plot: Or, How I Became a Catholic Suicide Bomber”; “The Case of The Haymarket Riot” based on the famous labor rights riot; and an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s muckracking 1906 novel of the Chicago meatpacking industry, “The Jungle.”

In the 10 years since its founding, Trouble Puppet has gained increasing traction with audiences, netting local theater awards as well as support from national sources including the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the Jim Henson Foundation, the Muppet creator’s philanthropic legacy.

That puppets have for centuries functioned as entertainment vehicles of social and political agitation remains the appeal for Hopkins and company.

Says Hopkins: “Puppets allow you to get away with a lot more.”



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