Brian Kooser, the twisted genius behind Seattle's Monkey Wrench Puppet Labs brings his 2002 hit production of "Frankenocchio" back from the dead, this time under the direction of noted local shadow puppet master Scott Augustson ("Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes") to open Empty Space Theatre's 35th Season. In this somewhat expanded version, we are once again regaled, titillated and made slightly squeamish by the earthbound adventures of the little puppet "boy toy", Frankenocchio, as he seeks to rejoin his extremely agile head with the rest of his body, while wending his way through the dark pathways -- and darker libidos -- found in a third rate traveling sideshow.
For those who haven't previously encountered Kooser's work, be warned -- this isn't your typical kiddie puppet show - not by a long shot. Kooser and playwright Stephanie Timm have created a dark, sardonic, erotic and surreal fractured fairytale landscape populated by all manner of physical anomalies and emotional cripples, whose very bizarreness becomes a metaphor for our own twisted psyches. Heavily influenced by everything from The Brothers Grimm, to Mary Shelley to Todd Browning's 1932 MGM exploitation classic "Freaks", to "Edward Scissorhands", "Frankenocchio" is a simple tale of flawed characters yearning for the comforts of love, security and belonging, told in a manner that may find even the most jaded theatre-goer watching in slack-jawed awe or revulsion -- and perhaps both at the same time.
Granted, the piece is thin on plot, even in this embellished version: Benevecchio, a washed-up drunk of an ex-clown longs for a little boy to keep him company in his twilight years. His wish is granted in the form of Frankenocchio, a mostly mute angel literally cut loose by God, who upon crashing to earth finds head severed from body. Fortunately, puppets aren't bound by the same rules as earthly mortals, and so the upper part bounces off in search of the lower, encountering the lonely old clown along the way, while his torso makes the acquaintance of the libidinous wife of the circus owner, Malevecchio, who is willing to trade cuckoldry for a new attraction to boost his flagging sideshow. Benevecchio provides the head with a host of surrogate bodies; a rag doll, a chicken, even a baby Harp Seal, but despite his best intentions nothing but the original will do. All this seems intended to reflect our own need for a sense of completion, as indeed most of the other major characters engage in increasingly bizarre and grotesque parallel journeys (the expression of which may prove too much for some audience members, as was certainly the case on opening night). The piece makes up for its dearth of story by injecting a double-dose of atmosphere, aided by Kooser's funhouse mirror-warped scenery and garish lighting effects by Patti West. It's the sort of nightmarish world that might have been dreamt by Tim Burton after listening to Tom Waits while dosed up on codeine cough syrup.
As performed by Kooser and Timm, along with three actor/puppeteers (David Goldstein, Keiko Ichinose and Roy Stanton), and accompanied by the bigtop klezmer song stylings of Seattle's incomparable Circus Contraption, the puppetry (done in the manner of the traditional Japanese bunraku style) is really the star of this show. With as many as three people required to manipulate them, these simple constructs of wood, cloth, and paper mache are magically imbued with personalities that are as emotionally and physically demonstrative as any live actor. That they are given all too human foibles and failings only adds to the wonderment, as we are swept into a world at once fantastical yet all-too familiar. Augustson's direction at times seems languid to the point of indulgence, as if he felt the need to stretch the rather thin material to full-length, resulting in sections where nothing much seems to be happening. But, it also lends the piece a dreamy sense of time moving and shifting arbitrarily, giving the intricately precise articulations of the puppets a peculiarly stylized quality, as if they were performing a butoh dance, which only adds to the already surreal proceedings.
Clearly, "Frankenocchio" is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and those who saw the earlier version may find little new to justify a second go-around. But, for those with an adventuresome spirit, who aren't put off by the sight of puppets performing brazenly bawdy, sinful and violent acts, there's definitely something soft and touchingly human to be found in the monstrously loveable denizens of Kooser and Timm's feverish collective imagination.
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