Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Fringe Day 2, Part 1 - August 7, 2004, 1:00pm

Death Penalty Puppetry
Chameleon Theatre Circle
Loring Playhouse

Mom says, "I know it's weird to say given the subject matter, but that was a lot of fun. Our first five-star show."

Mom and I are in full agreement on this one. Way back when I first heard the title this spring, and contacted the folks at Chameleon, I was hoping the finished product could live up to the Fringey promise of that title. When I sat in on one of their very first workshops, I had a very good feeling that they could pull it off. And they have.

I know some folks may wonder, "What's with the puppets?" but I think that was the key to making this show work. If it was just humans alone illustrating and debating the pros and cons of the death penalty, I might have stayed away. The danger of being too preachy with this sort of thing is very high. But the puppets help you skirt that, at least as far as this audience member was concerned. You can put words in a puppet's mouth that a human actor would have a hard time getting away with.

Yes, there's a liberal bent to the overall show (the "Big Bad Tim" musical number with a goofy-looking elephant standing in for our current governor is where the company hilariously and unapologetically tips its hand - and bravo!).

But there are also several pieces within this "death penalty revue" that are either thought-provoking or unsettling or both that make even this lifetime anti-death-penalty writer stop and wonder - on the pro- side, "Yeah, just what the heck do you do in a situation like that? Where's the justice? Where's the sense?"

One runs the risk of possibly treating the subject too lightly, but I think they walk that tightrope very well, too.

The star-spangled, red, white and blue set is a delightful and fitting environment in the which to play out these vignettes. The alternating slides of information on the death penalty and puppetry make for some amusing juxtapositions, framing as they do sketches of wildly varying style and content.

Two problems I had were more technical than anything else and are easily fixed. The "puppet in the electric chair" sequences that provide the framing device for the show are so dark, it's hard to know what's going on - and I saw it in the middle of the afternoon, with some inevitable helpful bleedthrough of sunlight into the Loring space helping out, and still...

The other was sound oriented. Particularly during the musical numbers, the puppet voices would tend to get drowned out. Because we don't have the advantage, as we do on human actors, to interpret words by watching the movement and formation of the lips, some of the fun and information was lost (particularly in the "Chicago" homage - which I quite enjoyed otherwise).

I realize we're talking about performers stuck behind flats with their hands high in the air, and they have a lot of inference to deal with, so turning down the volume on the music would probably help. Turning up the lights in the other instance would also.

Those are really minor issues, and they may already have been worked out as I write this, since I saw the opening performance. There were so many laugh-out loud moments in this one for me, at the same time that my brain was sifting through the pros and cons of a very weighty issue, that I have the greatest admiration for the Chameleon Circle folks. They pulled it off, in a big way.

Catch one of their remaining performances. Trust me, you never laughed so hard at murder and executions.

(For more of my writing - plays, past blog entries and more - visit www.matthewaeverett.com)

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