Uprising / Missoula Oblongata / Wham City


           Except for the all-professional Mum Puppettheater, most puppet troops grace Philadelphia with only single-night runs.  Artblog likes to tell you about things you can still go see for yourself – so consider these jottings from recent fringe theater as anticipation of the upcoming Puppet Uprising Cabaret, tonite 12/5 and Saturday 12/6 at the Rotunda.

            Missoula Oblongata takes its aesthetic more from puppetry than from theater: conspicuously home-made sets, heavy on patchwork and paper mache.  Via the Puppet Uprising network, they brought ‘Last Hurrah of the Clementines to a yoga studio on Baltimore Ave. one Friday in late November.  The show opened with the dreamy twang of a guitar, and a woman bent over a telescope at her bedroom window.  Just outside, an egg dangles; a charming trick of planetary scale.  “The question of life in outer space is only for lonely people to ponder.”  Was this a voiceover, or her words?  I don’t recall, but either would preserve that scene’s ambience.  Mr. and Mrs. Clementine,  an elderly pair, are now under their covers; the old trick where the bed is vertical, and they stand against it.  On each square of their patchwork quilt, a prime number is emblazoned large.

The Missoula Oblongata telescope.
The Missoula Oblongata telescope.

            They are self-employed mathematicians, and sing a song on the therapeutic function of prime numbers for the monotony of marriage: “When you get tired of talking about 167, there’s always 169.”  This sounds bizarre, and possibly not even entertaining, right?  Well, you have to see it to get it, but you also should know about two the troop’s creative process. – “a specific collaborative method,”  Madeline ffitch [sic] explained, “We don’t have  narrative – just a list.” The things on this list are image-driven, visual.  “I wanted to build a tree; Donna a giant red tent [?]. I wanted to be an athlete; she to do play about prime numbers.”  So they exchange lists, write first drafts, then swap the drafts.  The process iterates until a play emerges.  In this case, it involves many fortune cookies, and the athlete who abandons her team — a yearning for individuality.  It’s a silly play, but the acting is solid – they maintain the line separating absurdity from mere goofyness.  (Ontological Theater has invited Missoula Oblongata for a 2-week run in 2009.)

            Donna is Baltimore-based Donna Sellinger, and she also a directed  ‘They Should All Be Destroyed / A Jurassic Park Play’ that came to PIFAS the previous weekend.  I expected high avant-garde, because of the venue, and because we’d heard that the company, Wham City, had already been picked up by the New York Times.  Not until we arrived (late) and heard the riotous laughter, did I realize it had anything to do with Spielberg’s film. 

raptor JP SM


PIFAS, packed for Jurassic Park (the play). 

            PIFAS was more packed than I’ve ever seen it (e.g. the Architecture w/o Architects series – stay tuned next week), with folks quite literally perched on the rafters.    Rarely, if ever, have I used the word ‘zany’,’ but now is the appropriate time.  Characters are taken stock from the movie, whom I’d forgotten until then.  Dennis, the overweight and sleazy geek who operates the security system, parodied himself by stuffing raw meat into his mouth as he brags about his network wizardry.  Recall his famous confrontation with the velociraptor?  In this version, when his glasses are knocked off, he yells “I can’t afford new ones,” and instead of saliva, the raptor hits him with spray-foam.  

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 Dennis, stuffed fat with pillows, meets the raptor (note the shadows).

Everyone’s shadows are thrown up huge on the warehouse wall behind – not a horror-effect, but a charm of the DIY lighting.  Corrugated cardboard backdrops, hastily stenciled with leaves, mimic the rainforest.  Dennis’s computer monitors, though equally basic, are more beautiful: cubes faced in duct tape, with colored light gels for screens.  And remember when Tim climbs down a dormant electrified fence just as the power comes back on?  Here, he screams, they scream, he laughs, the audience laughs – “just like the movie,” he chuckles.  Which raises the question: why, exactly, does this play exist?  It follows the contours of the movie so closely – taking many lines unedited – but it blends in whimsy (electrocuted Tim is revived by séance, rather than CPR). 

My partial answer to this question is: consider these performances not under the category of ‘theater’, but in the slightly narrower sense of art.  They’re born of the same impulse to make and create, without economic rationale.  For the first several rehearsals, says Jared, roles were unassigned; parts were swapped.  The play ends with a grand musical number which was emphatically not part of the movie: “Jurassic Park / is a place / where man and lizard / can come together in peace.”  I still couldn’t quite grasp why (of all things) a play based on Jurassic Park.  Jared explains Wham City: “it’s constant collaboration – we’re all hanging out, excited about different ideas, and things just come together.”  Then, the 15 players tour in their vegetable-oil school bus, and present the play for free.

Remember, if this intrigues you, go Friday or Saturday to see something even more firmly in the realm of performance art: Puppet Uprising’s Year-End Cabaret.  4014 Walnut, 8pm both nights.

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 Baltimore’s Wham City tromps through Kensington
 to crash at an audience member’s house.