The Tortured Puppet

From the diminutive and dirty world of Joel Orr's Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre comes another strange story. Sex, drugs and art are at the center of this tawdry tale about a day in the life and death of Stan, a philosopher who lives in a make-believe land where cocaine and art supplies are both contraband. Created in cahoots with the totally live theater folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions, The Noblest of Drugs is as nasty and funny as anything either group has done alone -- though not necessarily as successful.

Inspired (or polluted, as the program says) by the life and works of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, a little-known Polish philosopher-artist of the early 20th century, Orr's satire of the tortured artist begins where many tortured artists start their days: with the morning hangover. Stan (Cary Winscott) certainly looks troubled. His long, green-tinged puppet-face bears a hooked nose, a dark shock of hair and the hollowed-out cheekbones of existential despair. His piercing eyes are twisted into a perpetual stare, and his mouth forever sneers at the idiocy of the world.

Waking to the lonely accordion notes of Anthony Barilla's lovely score of incidental music, Stan is horrified to discover that he's spent the night with Jadwiga (Melissa Winter), a pink-faced philosopher-groupie who's sworn her love to the sour puppet-man. Stan's adolescent inner machinations over whether to marry Jadwiga are hilarious. When he realizes that marrying her would cut him off forever from other, possibly more beautiful women, he throws her out the window and goes on with his day.

That he lives with his browbeating mother only underscores Stan's infantile philosophies about art, life and love. Suffering, drugs and self-indulgence seem to be the essential components of the artist's life, according to Stan, who spends his days snorting cocaine and getting busy with women, each more beautiful (in a puppet-world kind of way) than the last.

That he never actually makes art is a central irony in Stan's life. He's got a studio where he supposedly paints, and he claims to have written a play, which is magically enacted with shadow puppets on a tiny stage within a stage. But none of his work (if it is his work) is successful. Art for Stan, though a nobler drug, is as self-destructive as the cocaine he takes to be more creative. And he likes it that way.

Orr's puppet world casts a spell of almost childlike mystery. Designed by Yelena Zhelezov, the puppets are charmingly grotesque. Czeslawa (Jodi McLaughlin), the "beautiful" prostitute Stan spends his day snorting cocaine with, is a one-eyed, raven-haired vixen, perpetually casting a sexy sidelong glance at the world. Edgar (Keith Reynolds), Stan's writer friend, has multiple eyes, each with its own gold eyeglass. One of the funniest creations is a small nameless character, a gendarme, whose head is made from the butt of a plastic doll. Zhelezov's puppet landscape moves smoothly from Stan's bedroom to his studio to the street and back again.

Orr's script is often laugh-out-loud funny, but there are moments -- especially when Stan gets to philosophizing -- that drag. And some of Orr's points, such as the fact that Stan lives in a world that has outlawed art, are unclear until very late in the story. Directed by IBP's Jason Nodler, the production is filled with the irreverence his company is known for. And while this is not the strongest production Bobbindoctrin has put together, it's still kinky, smart and strange enough (who else would give us puppets who dare to show their nipples?) to entertain.

There is perhaps no finer Broadway composer and lyricist than Cole Porter. Any dissenters ought to march themselves over to the Hobby Center, where Theatre Under the Stars is mounting one of its most charming productions in years, Kiss Me, Kate.

Taking off from the brilliance of Shakespeare, Kiss Me, Kate tells the story of a company of actors doing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Porter successfully lifts lines directly from the Bard for many of the songs in the play within the play. "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple," for example, mirrors Kate's last speech once she has been tamed by Petruchio.

But the numbers sung by the actors waiting in the wings, so to speak, are even more fun. As directed by Glenn Casale, the unforgettable "Too Darn Hot" takes place in an alley at intermission. The tune, one of Porter's most famous, is sung by the charismatic Bernard Dotson. And it's backed up by John Macinnis's terrifically bawdy choreography of snaky hips and long luscious legs, laid bare by Martin Pakledinaz's sexy costumes.

Sung by two clownish thugs who find themselves on stage by accident, the comedic "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" was one of the favorites opening night. Michael J. Farina and Frank Kopyc cavort about the stage in true stooge fashion, evoking a kind of innocent humor that is all but dead now.

As both Kate and Lilli Vanessi (the actress who plays Kate), Lynne Wintersteller is a powerhouse. Relishing the hilarious wickedness of "I Hate Men," she throws her mighty voice and energy about the stage, flinging cups and plates with abandon. Equally strong is Merwin Foard as Petruchio and the actor Fred Graham. Foard's gorgeously romantic voice belies a remarkable ability to poke fun at himself -- as he does in "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" about the sacrifices men make for marriage.

And what would a Cole Porter musical be without a sexy dame? Danette Holden sings the naughty role of Lois Lane, the blond bombshell who's been hired from a traveling show to play Bianca. Holden's "Always True to You (in My Fashion)" burns up the stage with good old fashioned razzmatazz.

Kiss Me, Kate won Tony Awards both in 1948 for the original and in 2000 for the revival. After seeing the TUTS production, it's easy to understand why.