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Attack of the Puppet People

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).

 

Bobbindoctrin is gleefully violent, desperately sad and tinged with a mocking humor that lets you feel sort of smart -- at the Mary Jane's show, the Joel-puppet, trying to describe the "sound" his band is after, says, "Well, I like postmodernism, but deconstructionism is so complicated that it requires the use of constructivism in itself to put it all back together again and, like, do something with it." Sure, the characters are pitiable. Sure, Punchface grows a talking tumor and meets his mother in hell. But at least he does it in a Bobbindoctrin world, a world where phones can float and drinking straws can talk and sea monkeys rule the waters.

On the face of things, not much about Joel Orr would suggest that Bobbindoctrin's dark and bizarre stories originate with him. A bantamweight redhead described by one acquaintance as having a "nice little aura," by day Orr answers calls for technical support at a computer network company named Interliant. By night, at the house he shares with roommates in the Sixth Ward, Orr rehearses his troupe and writes new scripts. The 27-year-old is quiet, but not exactly mild-mannered. Bobbindoctrin provides him with a social and creative environment that suits him remarkably well -- his slight stature makes him seem scaled down, as if to fit a puppet-sized world.

Nice little aura notwithstanding, Orr leans toward the absurdly violent, and his latest script, The Black Box, has his cohorts cracking jokes about his going off the deep end. In its early scenes, a father -- for whom Bobbindoctrin's puppet maker, Larry Olivares, has created half-closed eyes and a perpetually pinched "duh" of a mouth -- dies in a plane crash, and an inspector delivers the plane's black box into the widow's hands. When she plays its recorded contents back, it reels off the screams of her husband's last moments. Her son starts pretending that the black box is his father, and he plays the tape over and over again until he drives his mother into a murderous rage. Throughout the puppet show, the audience will hear the screams of the dying father. Just thinking about it makes Orr give a happy little "heh heh."

To write about a particular subject (preferably abuse of some kind), Orr says, "I have to feel so strongly about it that I can't represent it except with puppets. I write about things that have niggled at me, and after a really long time they've niggled into my soul." But, he cautions, humor is an essential ingredient. "It's never just dark. It's dark and funny."

Bobbindoctrin may be the latest thing in Houston nightlife, but Orr's been thinking about puppets for a long time -- since 1989, actually, when he was living at the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, to which the aspiring playwright had moved after finishing high school in Friendswood. At first, Orr saw puppetry as a steppingstone, an exercise that would teach him the nuts and bolts of putting together a theatrical production. He and fellow Commerce Street resident Dennis Clay -- who now designs lights, sound, sets and miscellaneous mechanisms for Bobbindoctrin -- mounted a show entitled Free Advice, in which, against his will, a captive puppet becomes an oracle of wisdom. His advice is as misguided as its seekers are foolish, and it leads to the spontaneous combustion of one puppet in the production's finale. At that point, a man was supposed to show up with a fire extinguisher, but the first time Free Advice was presented before a crowd, he missed his cue. Instead, excited audience members rushed up to stamp out the flames. Free Advice was a big success.

Afterward, Orr followed up with a couple of more puppet shows. And in 1990, the script for Free Advice got him into Edward Albee's University of Houston dramatic writing workshop. But theater with actors -- or "meat theater," as puppeteers sometimes call it -- wasn't to Orr's liking. He produced a couple of his own scripts at DiverseWorks Artspace, but "nobody remembers that," he says. "People always remember the puppets."

 

In retrospect, the scripts Orr staged with actors sound more like puppet shows. For example, one featured a character named Bob who develops a hole in his hand. As he tries to figure out the cause of the hole, it grows bigger, until eventually his hand disappears. The title of that play, Bobbindoctrin, later became the name of the puppet troupe.

After a long hiatus, during which Orr finished up an English degree and worked as a manager at the Greenway Theatre, somebody at Zocalo Theatre remembered the puppets, and when they asked Orr to perform at 1995's Self-Indulgent Crap Fest, he couldn't resist. For help, he turned to his old collaborator Dennis Clay. The resulting production, Punchface, reminded Orr how much fun puppetry could be, and also how much he missed "that side of my life" -- the artistic side. "I knew if I worked on it, I could do something much better than what we had done," Orr says now.

Punchface was developed into a trilogy, and then Orr started on a series of warped fairy tales narrated by a rock-and-roll Gothic kidnapper puppet named Struwwelpeter (or, for those who don't speak German, "Shock-Haired Peter") who likes to torture the children he bags by telling them horrible stories. Bobbindoctrin shows have become increasingly elaborate, and Clay has even constructed a tall, booth-like stage built to look like an outhouse akimbo, complete with a little half-moon and a propane-fueled smokestack.

As Bobbindoctrin's shows have evolved, so have Orr's ideas about puppetry. Puppets, he points out, are both didactic and violent, with Sesame Street's Muppets at one extreme and the antics of Punch and Judy at the other. The best Bobbindoctrin shows combine both elements. In No Vocab Man, for example, the letter "L" makes a guest appearance to bully No Vocab Man about his inability to write.

The best thing about puppet shows, Orr says, is the fact that the audience has no idea what to expect. They're automatically off guard, and they're also less respectful, an attitude the Doctrineers encourage. By performing in nightclubs such as Mary Jane's and Instant Karma and neighborhood cafes such as Brasil (and, once, at a $500-a-plate gala the troupe now refers to as "the rich people show"), Bobbindoctrin assiduously courts the element of surprise -- not that there's any place they could perform where they wouldn't seem a little odd. "I like the idea of an audience going into something not ready to take it seriously at all," says Orr. "They're not prepared for the visceral experience I've laid out for them."

Though Bobbindoctrin is Houston's only -- and, puppetry buffs say, probably Houston's first -- adult puppet theater, it's part of a national trend that is slowly coming of age. The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, founded in 1978, is increasing its number of adult shows yearly, and recently completed a popular series, The Illuminating Adventures of Rex Rocket in Outer Space, that drew a rock and roll audience similar to Bobbindoctrin's. There are at least as many kinds of puppets as there are types of animation, and contemporary puppet shows such as Bobbindoctrin's often mix methods, using marionettes, rod puppets and shadow puppets in the same play. (Bobbindoctrin used marionettes once, as captives -- they dangled them off the edge of the stage for the entire performance.) Puppet performances vary from virtuosic ventriloquy, where puppeteer and puppet talk to each other, to abstract, primarily visual productions.

Until a July trip to the Puppeteers of America National Festival in Toledo, Ohio, Orr says, he had never seen a live puppet show (other than Bobbindoctrin's, of course). Though he was aware of the country's oldest adult puppet brigade, the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont, it wasn't until a friend of his saw a version of Frankenstein at the puppetry center in Atlanta that Orr realized there were others mining the same vein that he was. "There was definitely some sort of validation [in finding out]," he says. "At the same time, it really puzzled me because there are lots of people who have been working for a long time, and who do great stuff, and I didn't find out about any of it until I became a puppeteer. They just haven't, for some reason, broken the envelope."

According to Center for Puppetry Arts associate producer Bobby Box, that's "an American thing. In Europe, puppetry for adults is very common. In Latin America, they use puppets in political marches. In the U.S., we have this mentality that puppets are for kids, because we grew up with the Muppets." Even the founder of Bread and Puppet Theatre, with its tenacious leftist sensibility (the life-sized puppets were taken on Vietnam protest parades, and the puppeteers serve home-baked bread to the audience that camps out to see their annual show), came to the U.S. from Germany.

 

If anything, Orr's exposure to other puppeteers has emboldened him. He is busy building Bobbindoctrin's repertoire in anticipation of a West Coast tour (during which, of course, Bobbindoctrin will move in on the music venue audiences). He'd also like to see Bobbindoctrin included in a regional puppetry festival or two. "I learned an awful lot, but believe me," he told the rest of his troupe when he returned from Toledo, "there's nobody out there who's as sick and twisted as us." With a certainty devoid of bravado, he continued, "We definitely have an edge."

Box admits that the Bobbindoctrin script he's seen, The Black Box, is "very dark," and he plans to recommend it for the Center's experimental puppetry series. But, like Orr, he points out that violence has been a part of puppetry since cavemen used shadows and drawings to tell about their hunts. "When you put a puppet in a kid's hand, one of the first things they want to do is start kicking and biting with it," Box says. "People will do things with puppets that they won't do themselves."

It's Sunday night, and Frog Gilmore is making brains. In the attic of Orr's Sixth Ward house, an attic that's half bedroom and half puppet workshop, she patiently papier-máches softball-sized lumps of gray matter for Got Brains?, a puppet infomercial in which a smooth salesman tries to peddle his ten easy steps for growing additional brains. A University of Houston radio/television/film student who works at an animal clinic, Frog sports green streaks in her long black hair. Tattoos of green amphibians leap across her legs. Like most of her fellow Doctrineers -- students, waiters, Greenway Theatre employees, a high school dropout -- Frog knew several of the group's members, came to their shows and was drafted at the last minute to help run a puppet performance, in her case at the Landmark Theatre Christmas party. Frog decided to stick with it. "I don't really do anything else," she says, matter-of-factly.

Contemporary puppeteers tend to be auteurs who write, direct and build their own shows. In contrast, Orr spreads the work out among the Doctrineers, who manage to intuit the right look, sound and feel for Bobbindoctrin. Though they're a talented bunch, it seems the younger Doctrineers are along for the joy ride -- Orr is the one with the Big Picture and the keys to the car. In a way, Bobbindoctrin functions like an afterschool program for big people. It Keeps Them Occupied, gives them the Satisfaction of a Job Well Done and provides a Creative Outlet, especially for juvenile talents such as making weird noises (and no, they don't get paid). The group's resident puppet maker, 21-year-old Larry Olivares, has already parlayed his puppet making into a side job making prototypes of toys for an inventor. He's Making Something of Himself.

Bobbindoctrin also provides an opportunity to belong without conforming. It's a group activity, yes, but one that allows Doctrineers to participate enthusiastically, capturing their attention in much the same way that at performances it lures the normally blase into brief interludes of audience participation -- by being anything but normal. Doug Spearman, a waiter and graphic arts student who wears a Wu-Tang T-shirt and a Nike cap pulled down tight, says he is "not a quote unquote artist." He is quite serious when he adds, "Everybody's in a band. Everybody's an artist ... It's fun to be involved in something that I don't hold in contempt."

Spearman is one of Bobbindoctrin's puppet voices. He and his pal Joel Parker were recruited as vocal actors when Orr noticed that they were always cracking each other up with goofy banter. Parker, who works at the Greenway, is a mail-order Reverend, a collector of neckties and Betamax tapes and a member of a band named Inbred Whiteboy. Parker also wears his neckties, and genially shakes hands with everyone in a room every time he comes and goes. He likes Bobbindoctrin because it keeps him from "turning bitter and spiraling into my black hole of depravity. If I didn't make fun of myself," he says, "I'd probably go completely crazy, and I don't want to do that yet. Unless it'll get me women."

While Frog and Larry cobble away upstairs, and Dennis rigs up some unbelievably deluxe lever mechanism for the brain puppets out in a shed where the outhouse is stored, Doug, Joel and Beth Crelia practice their puppet voices. During the actual performance, they will sit off to one side of the stage, watching the action and speaking into mikes, berating the audience in between acts, forcing them to chant "pup" and "it." "It's a cross between puppet theater and radio music theater," Dennis explains. "All the tech is right there in front of the audience."

 

"This is your last chance!" intones Beth as Jo-Jo, the infomercial brain-merchant. (Olivares has put magnets in Jo-Jo's palms so that at rest, his hands clasp together in a ministerial gesture.) Beth is an architectural design assistant and a backstage dresser and a mountain biker and also, quite obviously, a Leo. "All you need is a touch-tone phone, $39.99 and a little piece of brain," she booms in a voice that has never known a timid moment. "Call 1-800-GET SOME and the first booklet of my ten-step program will arrive in one week! Then during the third week you'll have a great big HEALTHY BRAIN sitting next to you helping you figure out what to do with the millions of brains that are on the way!! Call 1-800-GET SOME right nnnnoooowwwwww! Tell 'em you're with Jo-Jo."

As Beth reads, Orr's two dogs (Soma and Cosa, meaning "body" and "thing") chase each other, and somewhere between three and 13 cats prowl around the living room. An unlit applause sign sits on the table, waiting to be rigged up with a light. Dave Handel, who has recently begun contributing scripts to Bobbindoctrin, looks on. Got Brains? and No Vocab Man are his scripts. He's 19, about to head off to the University of Texas in Austin after a summer working at the Greenway. "I've always had ideas and I've always wanted to write," he says. "But this gave me a little deadline." A little deadline, apparently, was all Handel needed, because he's since turned in more scripts than Bobbindoctrin can produce in a year, and Orr thinks they keep getting better -- especially the Got Brains? sequel, a brain cuisine show titled Hungry for Knowledge.

"I really lucked out with Dave," Orr says. "Somehow, he's right on my wavelength." Handel, on the other hand, thinks he's the one who lucked out. "It just makes my scripts look a lot better. I was surprised, but a lot of people had a lot of compassion for No Vocab Man, even though he's such a sad, pathetic little character."

After rehearsal, Orr goes over the Bobbindoctrin schedule with the crew. First up are three performances of No Vocab Man, Got Brains? and The Black Box set for Labor Day weekend, when Bobbindoctrin will perform as part of the Electric Love Light Orchestra and Feel Good Machine, a sort of retro-rave saluting the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love, at DiverseWorks. Up till now, the puppet performances have been one-night-only affairs, but Orr plans to run these three at various venues throughout September. On Halloween, Bobbindoctrin has another gig at Mary Jane's, opening for Little Jack Melody.

But that's just for starters. Orr devotes a lot of time to daydreaming, in the course of which he has, in his mind at least, booked the company for the next five or ten years with local shows, regional festivals, a West Coast tour. Orr, along with Dennis Clay, has one main project on his agenda: to get a permanent home and start a puppetry center, where Bobbindoctrin can diversify its productions, work on full-length shows and children's shows and bring touring puppet shows to Houston. Dennis, who works in the film industry as a key grip, envisions the center as a dream retirement setting, where he could spend all day tinkering in a puppetry workshop. Meanwhile, they're working on their application for nonprofit status.

If, in the meantime, the novelty of Bobbindoctrin wears off, so much the better. Audiences will come to expect more just as Bobbindoctrin learns to deliver more. "It's really just an inexhaustible medium," Orr says. "It's definitely a lifetime learning process." The very fact that the word Bobbindoctrin is ambiguous, he says, reflects the fact that puppetry is something he doesn't fully understand. "I would get bored if it weren't a constant exploration."

Out in the shed, Orr points out his "dream puppet," one a Doctrineer built for him after he described the concept. It's a large one, hulking and chalky white, designed to be used without a stage. It sits on its puppeteer's shoulders and points a puppet gun at his head. A puppet hijacker -- Orr loves this idea. Clearly, this man won't be satisfied when puppets are the headlining act. In his daily reveries, this is what Orr really thinks about: puppet terrorists demanding puppet freedom. A puppet revolution.


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