IMAGE ABOVE: Trouble Puppet’s production of The Crapstall Street Boys. Photo by Chris Owen.
The Salvage Vanguard Theatre hosted a special double feature on March 1, with Trouble Puppet Theatre’s Crapstall Street Boys and Bootown’s The Curio Show. Bootown is representative of the very vibrant puppet theater scene in Houston, and what a pleasure it was to see them taking their show on the road.
The Curio Show plays out on three screens bound by picture frames lit from behind by overhead projectors. Black curtains staple gunned to the frames during intermission shielded the puppeteers and musical accompaniment. Essentially, the shadow puppet performance consisted of a cabinet inside an antiquated wonder emporium known as a curio cabinet. The objects inside the cabinet each told a brief story, and the show ended as simply as it began once all the stories were told.
Despite its short run time of approximately 35 minutes, The Curio Show moved at a leisurely pace. The brain-child of Lindsay Burleson and performed with the help of Larkin Elliott, Peter Zama, and Emily Hynds, The Curio Show was incredibly entrancing because it never sought to explain itself. Objects on the overhead were placed with care and delicacy. Much of the imagery appeared to be simple paper cutouts controlled by thin sticks, styled like a poster from a 19th century snake oil salesman. The pacing was further slowed by repetitive story telling. In one instance, the imagery of a tarot card is slowly assembled. When the card is assembled for a second time, it seems to take even longer, because we know the result.
Slow repetition was by no means a drawback, but, in fact, the mechanism that lulled the viewer into hypnotic enjoyment of the assembly process. My threshold for what I consider significant change in imagery was lowered, and my sensitivity to subtle change augmented. As such, a balloon on a string floating across a screen, or a change in ambient color from blue to orange, was a momentous occasion.
Hypnotic attention was also born through the repetitive music themes composed by Mlee Marie. Every instance of the opening of the cabinet was accompanied by the theme from Zelda: Ocarina of Time, played on what sounded like an ante-bellum music box (but was probably a Nord). Bootown evoked the uncanny by pairing familiar music, such as “Fly Me To the Moon,”with bizarre subject matter. The rare moments of audible dialogue, excerpts of a spousal altercation, were incredibly jarring because I was visually and auditorily entranced in the preceding moments.
Trouble Puppet’s Crapstall Street Boys was a robust two-hour, multi-media performance from the direction of Connor Hopkins and associates. Crapstall tells a post-apocalyptic Dickensian tale of child labor, cannibalism and capitalism gone horribly awry. Above the main performance area was a large projector screen that would show news reports and ambient imagery. For example, while a character is working in a large factory, the screen depicted a mess of gears and industrial machinery, which moved ever so slowly. In addition, puppeteers would hold a camera above their puppets heads, which fed into the projector providing a first person perspective a la Blair Witch Project. With all eyes on the camera, puppets would move through hallways and areas of the set not normally accessible to the audience.
In characteristic Trouble Puppet style, everything looked like it was made out of very high quality trash, coated in the finest of ramshackle grit. The puppets moved about the scenery on black, wheeled platforms. To create a sense of dynamism, the platforms were continually moving through the stage area like the belt of a treadmill, which allowed the puppets to move through an ever changing environment. Given the industrial setting of the work, Trouble Puppet made sure that all of the set pieces had actual functions. There were tiny cranes that dropped materials onto tiny elevators, which processed them before placing them on tiny carts. I’d recommend sitting very close so you can study all the tiny engineering at work.
Most of the characters were small children, which made for likewise, small puppets. However, all of the children had very defined postures and physicality. The classroom scenes contained such a natural sense of a crowd. Even when the children were seated, the puppets never truly remained still. The aggregate of all of their micro-movements and ticks lent a degree of verisimilitude despite the absurd subject matter.
The fight scenes were well executed. I recall one between the protagonist and a monster in which the two are struggling and the monster’s leg began to vibrate every so slightly. Trouble puppet is a rung above the rest in Austin puppet theater because of their attention to all of the sub-gestures that underlie all motion, even stillness. You can see The Crapstall Boys at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre until March 15.