String Beings

They're back! Those nasty little puppets from Bobbindoctin Puppet Theatre. And as always, the creepy -- yet strangely beautiful -- beings, erupting from the violently carnal imagination of puppet master Joel Orr, are up to no good. In the past, Orr's handmade friends have joined forces with a corrupt Mormon minister and gone proselytizing in the South Pacific, told the wicked story of man's assent up the food chain, and explored the dark side of love gone murderously rank. This time around, in The Crime of the Assistant Master Butler, Orr's pared-down, for-grown-ups-only puppet show focuses on the putrid lives of three fancy-pants butlers as they struggle to keep their place in the hierarchy of the servant class.

Anthony Barilla's spooky, funhouse background music comes complete with a toy piano melody accompanied by what sounds like a child whistling. As the theater lights at DiverseWorks go dark, the tinkling tune sets an ironically funereal tone. Designer Dennis Clay has created a whimsical puppet world with a painted, curved stone wall (which also serves as a hiding place for the puppeteers) and tiny props that include a lace-curtained window and doll-sized britches hung out to dry on a miniature line. Into this charming child-sized world pops Orr's equally diminutive cast of three.

Master Butler Beaumont (Alan C. Hall) quivers and shakes each time his master trumpets out his desires. Most of all, Master wants meat for dinner, but trouble brews. The peasants are rising up, and all that's left, in the way of edible flesh, on the now impoverished property is a mule and a dog. The quaking Master Butler hands his task down to Assistant Master Butler Athelstan (Greg Dean), who lives to serve. He, of course, hands off the chore to Mason (Eric Doss) Assistant to the Assistant Master Butler, who must go and shoot the dog -- the mule has already died from starvation.

Out of such absurdity comes the eventual demise of hierarchy, but not before we've been treated to some rather naughty chores that include servicing the master in more ways than one. It's all done discreetly, under cover of the pitch-black dark, but the scene is hysterically funny, as Athelstan does his best to "satisfy" Master. In fact, as with all Orr's shows, he and his handful of puppeteers manage to make the most revolting violence outrageously funny.

Once the dog's been butchered, all hell breaks loose and Mason gets quite handy with a knife. Through it all, Athelstan remains ridiculously eager to please. His sweetly morose painted face is ever wide-eyed and utterly innocent, though it's clear that Mason, with his hooked nose and sidelong glance, has made "a pact with Satan."

The production is simpler than past shows. Gone are the amazing shadow puppets and the pregnant puppet whose belly grew before our astonished eyes. This show relies solely on Orr's acerbic and bleakly funny take on our pathetically human world, as seen through the beautifully painted eyes of the little men who live and die in Orr's wonderfully strange imagination.

dAdA Productions, Houston's newest homeless theater group, opened its first season with an impressive if slightly wobbly Kingdom of Earth, one of Tennessee Williams's lesser-known works. Written after Williams's heyday ended, Kingdom was received poorly in its earliest draft, only to be rewritten in the mid '70s with a bit more success. Still, the wildly histrionic script never quite captures the heartbreaking lyricism of his early work. That said, director Ann James and her cast of three do remarkably well with this material.

Set during an impending flood in the Deep South, Kingdom introduces some familiar Williams characters. Chicken (Davi Jay) is a virile yet brutish lout. Lot (Joshua Gray), Chicken's half-brother, is a faded flower of a man who's dying of consumption. And Myrtle (Michelle Edwards), Lot's brand-new wife, is an aging beauty who has the strength to carry on despite severe problems.

Their floodplain farm and shack belong to brother Lot until he dies; then it passes to Chicken. But Lot can't stand the thought of Chicken laying claim to the place, so he's brought home a wife to muck up the agreement.

The real problem is that daffy Myrtle is stuck in the middle of nowhere, trying to negotiate between the battling brothers. And a flood is coming. The only way she can survive is to climb to the roof with the help of sexy but evil Chicken. In the end, the future belongs to the fittest (a familiar Williams theme) and Myrtle eventually makes the wisest choice, given the lousy situation life has thrown her way.

Throughout all the strange moments of this script -- they include a kitten thrown into the floodwaters and a consumptive man traipsing around in a blond wig and a white ball gown -- Edwards manages to find the heart of the wide-eyed Myrtle and turn her into a woman we can't help but admire. And though Jay's Chicken takes a little longer to catch fire, he too becomes strangely attractive by the story's end.

On the strength of these performances, dAdA Productions takes its first impressive steps toward establishing itself as a theater company to be reckoned with.

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Lee Williams