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Puppet Uprising packs ’em in


Post by Jacob Hellman

A musical interlude.

Puppet Uprising is more of a category than a fixed thing. Its organizers bring traveling shows and related vaudeville acts to our city, occasionally stage puppetry of their own, and sell legendary cheap art at their voluntary-donation shows. Their aesthetic is always grassroots, their politics are always radical, and their tone is usually silly. They entertain the young and old. Last night, they strayed from their habitual venue to host the Boxcutter Cabaret, at Fishtown’s new Walking Fish Theater.

I have never seen an Uprising begin less than 15 minutes late, but when I arrived accordingly, the row house-sized venue was packed to standing and the first act had commenced. A baby proscenium — a stage on the stage — hid the puppeteers as they manipulated painted cardboard characters the size of large rodents. Charming bluegrass numbers, performed live, followed each act.

The proscenium – a stage on the stage

The Boxcutter Cabaret is an ephemeral merging of three 2-person puppet troops from Texas, North Carolina, and Vermont. Some acts appeared collaborative (‘the Rural Person’s Verbal Reclamation Front’) and some were individual creations, like the Modern Times Theater‘s The Diary of Punch and Judy. In this riff on the underbelly of American agribusiness, the eponymous couple, discovering they are too hungry to copulate, attempt to start a farm — first, by raising cows, then pigs (they’re thwarted by the milk inspector and USDA inspector respectively), and finally, trying to raise vegetables, they meet resistance from a hawker of GMO-corn. In frustration, the farmer lures the inspector to meet his fate in the meat grinder, and yells, “after the show, I want everyone to go buy an uninspected chicken from your neighbor, and then drink some milk straight from the cow.”

Cheap Art. (Traveling puppet shows in the Bread-and-Circus school often supplement their money with cheap art for sale).
Cheap Art. (Traveling puppet shows in the Bread-and-Circus school often supplement their money with cheap art for sale).

The next act, announced in one long breath: “Divine Destruction, a pre-apocalyptic puppet epic in five scenes, featuring text from our current administration.” An army company of light bulbs march through hills, oil derricks bob gently in the background; a compact fluorescent bulb descends by string onto this landscape painted in layers.

A Shriner puppet.

There is generally mayhem, puppets fly from the stage. Characters announce themselves with the whhhhirls of party-favor noise makers. This and much of the rest of the show is overt political critique, sometimes hysterical, but we were all most delighted by the final act: Leo the Human Xylophone, “one of the last living gasps of vaudeville.” No puppets here — just the man, dressed in a suit, bow tie, mustache, and bowler — and a full octave of pitched bells affixed individually to his ankles, wrists, elbows, breast pocket, and cap. Through a feat of virtuosic body-shaking, he isolated the bells to create tunes, and serenaded us with a series of ditties, accompanied by his amateur baritone.

The collections hat. (Yes, a reference to current events.)

Come to Puppet Uprising with your unchecked imagination and without all of your high-art pretensions. Catch Boxcutter Tuesday at Haverford College (info is here), and don’t miss slightly more polished puppet festivities on Wednesday evening at the ICA (this evening includes work from Erik Ruin, whose stellar shadow-box puppet show, The Nothing Factory, was performed at Puppet Uprising last fall).

–Jacob Hellman is a Philadelphia artist and political activist