Island in the Fun

It's 1863, and Angus Wilcox is in dire straits. The gray-faced minister, who bears a striking resemblance to militant abolitionist John Brown, has been excommunicated, and his beloved Mormon Church has banished him and his hangdog family to the far reaches of the South Pacific. The natives are friendly enough, but dang it all, they're happy with the gods they've already got. Every one of the sour, sunken-cheeked Christians is dying to get off that South Seas island except for Wilcox, who's looking for some way to prove his righteousness.

That Wilcox and his entire universe have been conjured from the magic-making workshop of puppeteer-writer-director Joel Orr, founder of Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, only makes the preacher man's troubles all the more compelling. The man is literally a puppet in the hands of his creator. And like it or not, the black-cloaked messenger of the good word must suffer the will of his puppeteer gods, who have taken up gleeful residence at DiverseWorks, where everything bizarre seems wonderfully sane.

Bobbindoctrin's latest production, The Mauist, takes place on a fantasy moonscaped island somewhere near Hawaii. The denizens, all made from clay and cloth, include a big-eyed, soft-bearded Jesus; the volcano goddess Pele; a peg-legged, bald-headed convert from the American West named Dobbs and many, many more. This dark green craggy surface, surrounded by a ruffle of aqua cellophane sea, holds an ancient volcano, a mystical rock buried deep into the earth and a rocky, foreboding shoreline that few ships can maneuver. It is, in short, an altogether unfriendly place that offers no hopes of material riches to any of its beautifully crafted citizens, though the spiritual tests are enormous and lasting if one is willing to stay.

Wilcox is in it for the long run. His family hates it. Looking like a bunch of anorexic Calvinists in their black doll clothes, son Phillip and mother Eleanor are the spitting image of each other. Their beady dark eyes and chiseled cheekbones give their faces astonishing personality. Pinched and gray, these are creatures who toil under the weight of an angry God. The fact that they are puppets is striking only because they seem so, well, real, in a Pinocchio sort of way.

Made to be equally odd and beautiful are the locals, who don't have nearly so many anxieties. They watch the miserable missionaries with bemused curiosity. Kauakahi and Kalanikupule are fascinated with the "new Christians," though Kalanikupule points out that he misses the Catholics, as they were "very kind" about converting him. He's interested in all gods. In fact, he tries to make his own out of bits of trash. Being bighearted and friendly, he agrees to accept Jesus into his already large family of gods. And he shows a true interest in Wilcox's dig for his mystical rock. In an act of brotherly love, Kalanikupule brings his brand-new trash god to the dig for extra good luck.

The cast of 20-odd characters is played by five puppeteers. Craig Astrich, Steven Barnett, Paul Locklear, Lisa Pearson and Keith Reynolds all do a mesmerizing job of disappearing into their black clothes as they stand fully visible against the black backdrop that frames the tiny island, designed by Dennis Clay. The miniature world rests on a thigh-high table and curls across the DiverseWorks stage. Each puppeteer stands behind the island, gracefully maneuvering a puppet being across the small space.

They have wonderfully distinct, almost cartoony voices. Barnett's Wilcox hunkers under the weight of his toil, although his voice booms with preacherly weariness. Locklear's Philip sounds like a whining suburban valley boy next door. Even his ankle-length black pants and tight black jacket can't hide his burgeoning desire to embrace the material world. Pearson is the young pregnant maid, Sarah, who is especially appealing for her run-ragged irritation with the Wilcoxes and their cockamamie ideas; Pearson is also Hinakuluiau, the rain goddess. One of the funniest characters, Hinakuluiau gets confused at every turn. And sometimes the human world gets so confounding that water sprays out of her big goddess head.

Astrich's Dobbs is also hysterical. As Wilcox's only convert ever, Dobbs is a precious commodity to him. So what if the old man is so used to cussing that he hobbles about muttering "Goddammit." Reynolds gives voice to both the sweet-natured Kalanikupule and the withered Eleanor Wilcox. When these antithetical characters speak across a tiny table to each other, the moment is devilishly ironic and rich with childlike delight.

In The Mauist, Orr has created a story about humans looking for gods. Using the sort of sublime irony available only to a puppeteer, he makes the gods visible. The beings who walk in their shadows, searching in vain, are all the more pitiable and all the more lovable for each and every misstep they make as they wander through their lonely search.