Only the “famous” part is a fib: The 23 morbid excerpts that comprise Famous Puppet Death Scenes—-the Calgary, Alberta-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s fleet (80-minute) and funny meditation on our fleet and funny time on Earth, first staged in 2005—-are all crush-depth deep cuts that barely get read, much less performed. The show’s 12 credited creators are to be commended for their impeccable curatorial mien: What classically educated aesthete could forget Sir Walter Pill’s The Swede of Donnylargan, or Hour 14 of Thorvik Skarsbarg’s The Cruel Sea? Or Episode 12 of Dr. François LeBoule’s La Nature au Naturel?
Moreover, who could remember them? These plays do not, in the strictest sense, exist. But the wit and imagination the Old Trout team has invested in the fake plays and playwrights listed in the program are even more abundant in the ghoulish nut grafs from each drama that we actually witness. The puppets are wildly varied: Most are humanoid, but the Gumby-and-Pokey-colored cyclopses Ja and Nein might be some weird species of sea life or something. So, too, are the causes of death: Some are homicides, some are suicides, and some are just the natural workings of the food chain. Averaging less than three-and-a-half minutes apiece, these vignettes accrue into something surprisingly contemplative and even soulful as they hurtle toward their characters’ doom, while still being wildly inventive in their suggestion of the lurid violence happening (usually) just out of frame. It’s like The Itchy and Scratchy Show for depressives.
A puppet named Nathaniel Tweak hosts the show. The bushy shock of white hair that sits atop his wiry, masking tape-color frame makes him look a little like Albert Einstein. He urges us to embrace the hard fact of our dwindling days.
The puppeteers occasionally join their creations onstage. In one vignette, a puppeteer wheels a heavy-looking bound leather volume in from the wings, then turns the book on its spine and opens it to reveal a painting of a farmhouse. As he silently turns the pages, the successive paintings zoom closer in on that door while sounds of a violent struggle grow ever louder. Another scene depicts a man’s awakening in a world millennia evolved from the one he knew, wherein the diversity of the human face has been winnowed into a single, universally agreeable visage. And in a series of scenes from Nordo Frot’s The Feverish Heart; a puppet that vaguely resembles a penis dressed in suit tries to elude a curled Fist of Damocles that hovers overhead to brain him when he least expects it. Who among us has never suspected he was starring in some cruel cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole?
Were it not for our delight in whatever weird alchemical process it is that makes us empathize with a block of wood or a lump of felt or rubber that represents a sentient being—-some of them don’t even appear to have eyes, for God’s sake—-Famous Puppet Death Scenes would likely be too existentially horrifying to endure. As things are, it’s too wickedly gratifying to miss.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Jan. 4
Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company