On Stage: Beyond the Puppet

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: ‘Famous Puppet Death Scenes’ takes a deeper,darker look at the humor of these wooden creatures.

(Photo by )

Puppet Edward Grue is just one of the wooden characters in 21 vignettes that explore the darker side of puppet life. (Photo by Jason Stang Photography)

I don’t have much fondness for puppets. I list them in the same category as street mimes; I usually find them annoying and not especially entertaining. The staging of “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” now at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre hasn’t changed my mind completely, but I now feel more positive about puppets.

This is a cleverly conceived show that shows creativity and is smart, funny and a bit wacky. Created by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, the title is said to come from country legend that an old trout that lives deep in a swimming hole on a ranch in Alberta, Canada will answer any question asked of it if the swimmer can dive deep enough in the water to meet the venerable fish.

That unverifiable tale was the inspiration for a group of former Rocky Mountain camp counselors who created the puppet workshop by borrowing the trout as a creative influence and moved to Calgary. That history is important because the workshop is a company of young iconoclasts who have an absurd view of the world, and in this case, death.

Most of us have had little to no experience with puppets beyond the noisy antics of Punch and Judy glimpsed occasionally in movies. They just seemed to pound on each other and scream, evoking a lot of laughter that seems beyond explanation. Allegedly, they appeal to the innate violence children seem to enjoy.

“Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is not a cohesive piece of work, but a rapidly-paced staging of 21 vignettes over 100 minutes. The master puppeteers – Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes and Viktor Lukawski – who often appear on stage with the same expressionless faces as the wooden actors, are as effective as their charges.

The one character who holds the show together is the puppet Nathanial Tweak, a sad, wizened old man with unruly white hair and spindly arms and an aura of bearing the burden of the wisdom of the ages. He is a legend not unlike the old trout, and is an effective emcee.

Most of the skits are smart and thoughtful and reach beyond the mayhem and violence expected from puppets. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop creators and players are attempting to say something significant — that behind the madcap humor is a darkness and sadness of life over which no one has any control. And that maybe the only way to endure it all is to try to laugh at the absurdity of life.

There is a special genius about what the puppeteers are attempting and they may actually be on the way to breathing creative life and meaning into an ancient, little-admired form of entertainment. They are close to achieving that respectability.

“Famous Puppet Death Scenes” continues through January 4, 2015 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Tickets are $55-$98 and available at 202-393-3939 and online here

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