Attack of the Puppet People

Bobbindoctrin makes one thing perfectly clear -- puppets aren't just for kids anymore.

The lights go on behind a flimsy plywood flat that's been plunked down in the middle of Mary Jane's. A rectangle has been cut in the flat, and inside it, a sort of a grown-up doll with tiny stitched blue jeans, a blue halter top and red yarn pigtails bobs up and down. Her wide, pink, papier-máche face is rouged and lipsticked. Her mouth doesn't move, but she is shrieking hick obscenities, and her arms -- little springs with hands attached -- bob in agitation. The Friday evening is gearing up toward a buzz, but the crowd at the Washington Avenue nightclub stays quiet, intent on the scene unfolding in front of them, occasionally letting loose a happy jeer. As the lights go down momentarily, miked voices that sound like an amateur Stevens and Pruett give instructions: On cue, half of the audience will yell "Pup!"; the other half will chime in with "It!"

"Pup!"
"It!"
"Pup!"
"It!"

It's only a moment before the chant collapses into self-conscious giggling, as everyone simultaneously realizes they've been duped into audience participation. "I've seen a lot of people," quips one of the miked voices, quoting Bon Jovi. "And I've rocked them all." At that, the lights in the rectangle go on again, and the crowd hunches forward.

On a white paper screen behind the "stage," a black-and-white drawing of a bedroom pops up, and another production of the Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre begins. In the rectangle, a hand puppet that looks like Joel Orr, the founder of Bobbindoctrin, approaches a hand puppet that closely resembles Toby Blunt, the brusque and bearded musician who owns Mary Jane's.

But Bobbindoctrin has, as usual, given reality a twist. In the puppet show, a naive and excited Joel tells Toby about his stupendous idea -- he wants to start a band, and he wants the band to play at Mary Jane's. Only trouble is, Toby-the-puppet only books, well ... puppet shows. The two puppets have vivid, painted heads; their bodies are simple cloth drapes that make them look like wise men or hospital patients.

The puppet Joel eagerly explains the concept of a band ("We wanna decompose sound to its most basic and ridiculous components"), and assures Toby that the songs won't, as the manager first assumes, be ditties aimed at small children. Then he asks if, perhaps, the band might start out by opening for a puppet show?

That gets a laugh, because the irony is clear. Tonight, Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre is opening for two musical acts.

A puppet show isn't what you'd expect to find at a nightclub, but this isn't your standard puppet show. It's created expressly for the 18-and-up, curiosity-seeking, see-if-you-can-offend-me crowd. And tonight, the crowd is clearly into the Bobbindoctrin thing, this thing that is clearly related to other cool things -- comic books and animation and the Church of the Subgenius. But it is just as clearly something entirely new.

It's not theater, it's not performance art, it's not another thrash band. Bobbindoctrin has levers and sparks and rods and pipes; cardboard box puppets with inner-tube mouths, intended to be worn on the puppeteer's head; Lewis Carrollish bird creatures feathered with tomatillo husks; and robot puppets built of vacuum cleaner nozzles, toy amplifiers and something slimy and bright called Gak. Bobbindoctrin has bellowing voices and trippy backdrops and whistly little sound effects and alcoholic characters. Best of all, it does not require a span of attention longer than 12 minutes -- which is about the length of time a novice puppeteer can keep his arms in the air before he needs a break.

The second irony of the evening comes once the show is over, after a man calmly tears through the backdrop and starts playing a Scottish march on the bagpipes, a stage light hitting him from behind. Musical acts waiting in the wings or no, when Bobbindoctrin is done, most of the audience files out of Mary Jane's, as if in homage to Joel Orr's fantasy, where puppets are the norm -- and bands are just a fringe thing you can afford to miss.

Bobbindoctrin was born two years ago at Zocalo Theatre, at something called the Self-Indulgent Crap Fest. It was born in the midst of artists showing their home movies, getting naked and spanking each other. It was born in the guise of Punchface, a whiny boy-puppet so named because his balloon-like face had been permanently dented by his angry father. Bobbindoctrin wasn't even born in a barn (which Zocalo Theatre used to be), it was born out in the yard in an old ticket-taking booth, and it is therefore understandably quite rude.

In most Bobbindoctrin shows, the nice guy -- if there is one -- finishes last and is worse off at the end than when he began. Take for example Don't Beat Your Children Before They're Born, an adapted Iranian tale in which a poor slob's suspicion that his children will turn out to be no good ruins his plan to have them in the first place. Then there's No Vocab Man, in which the title character finally learns to communicate, only to find that no one will listen. The morality tale doesn't end with anything so mundane as a moral. It ends, as so many American fables do, with a .44 magnum (and some stage magic -- a switch ignites a tiny explosion in one puppet's head to simulate its being hit by gunfire).

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