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Fools Dive In

Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre has hit the (relative) big time. After three years of putting on charmingly crude and not-suitable-for-children short shows at bars and underground arts events, the puppet people took a giant leap toward a broader audience with their new two-act, evening-length play at DiverseWorks.

Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, Ivan the Fool is the tale of a hapless farmer who, through sheer stupidity, manages to thwart the Devil, become tsar and live happily ever after. The fable weighs in on such already weighty ideas as government, religion, class, law, philosophy, war and capitalism -- a far cry from any lessons we may have learned from Bobbindoctrin classics like No Vocab Man. But writer, director, founder and mad genius Joel Orr hasn't strayed too far from his rowdy roots.

While there are no pyrotechnics and few four-letter words, Orr's version of Tolstoy is still sprinkled with the base Bobbindoctrin wit we've grown to love: The Devil's imps piss (complete with sound effects) on Ivan's crop so it can't be harvested, and two boisterous old biddies sing a song for the fool. It goes something like, "Ivan, Ivan, he's not dumb. Ivan, he makes all the girls ... oh, well, hmm, uh, I dunno..." And the moral of the story is as subversive as ever: "Let's not ever develop a system of beliefs," the happy idiots agree.

What is new is Bobbindoctrin's use of actors to manipulate the puppets in full view of the audience. It is a gamble that risks distraction, but it pays off. The actors' compelling facial expressions add another dimension, a reverberation, to the already fascinating puppet characters created by Larry Olivaros. Up-front acknowledgment of the actors allows for some wonderful comic moments: Behind-the-scenes puppeteer Katy Jackson shuffles out like a sheepish prop girl to tape Ivan's plow back together after the Devil caused it to break.

Sarah Mitchell and Kerri Cobb-Black prove excellent at the physical puppetry itself, particularly with the old ladies and with Ivan's mute but seizure-happy sister. And Paul Locklear plays Ivan with the perfect imitation of an adolescent's constantly changing nasal speech. But it's the timing and voice control of Troy Schulze that really stand out: Playing the gruff old Devil, a scheming imp, Ivan's father and the obsessed-with-world-domination brother/ soldier, Schulze convincingly carries on whole conversations with himself.

More impressive is Orr's seamless melding of different forms of puppetry into a well-crafted whole. Between the bookends of Anthony Barilla's Russian-inspired score, anything can happen. The play begins with sliding illustrations taking the scene down through stars, trees and earth to the Devil's fiery lair. Schulze kneels with his horned, green mask in a tiny proscenium beneath the screen, where shadow puppets provide a visual aid to his speech. As Schulze crawls through the proscenium and walks downstage, his Devil puppet unfolds to become a sort of larger-than-life costume. Quick as a flash, Jeanne Harris takes over the manipulation of the downstage Devil, and Schulze, still speaking, moves back to a tilted table to take his position handling Ivan's smaller rod-puppet brother.

The choreography, for lack of a better word, runs like clockwork. The best examples are the scenes that unabashedly mix media: When Ivan exits to chop wood in the forest, three shadow trees and a meddling imp appear on the shadow-puppet screen. As the final tree begins to fall on the screen, a full-size fake Christmas tree falls onto the stage in the same direction, trapping a larger imp-puppet beneath it. Carefully arranged touches like these may make the puppets-are-for-kids crowd realize that Bobbindoctrin can tell a story more provocatively than most "real" theaters in town.

As the lights went up and the applause subsided on a recent performance, Orr could be overheard saying, with much relief in his voice, "Game over, man." But it's clear that for the fearless fools of Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, the game is just beginning.

Ivan the Fool continues Thursday, March 18, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 20, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, (713)228-0914. $10-$12.

 
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