The show begins with three brave volunteers from the audience stepping up the tiny set of stairs onto the stage. One hundred or so adult only audience members laugh and watch as they are quickly turned into full size living puppets. Silent and stationary until their puppeteer comes along side of them, grips their shoulders to open their mouths and then throws his voice to them so they each sound goofy, throaty or silly. The petite 30 year old lady whose birthday is tonight, is given a deep gruff voice by her puppeteer. She is a puppet aficionado wearing her own handmade glittery hand puppet.
She threw her hand up to volunteer like the teacher's pet in class asking "Weren't we supposed to have a test today?" She nearly leaps onto the stage with her enthusiasm. The other two living puppets, a bearded taciturn man in his forties whose shy inner eight year old peeks out when he's on stage is given a high pitched girly voice. An older school teacher type in her late fifties walked up on the stage like it was her solemn duty to the crowd. They were all good sports. The Paul Mesner Puppet Slam has begun.
The Paul Mesner Puppets have been a staple in Kansas City for nearly twenty five years. Sharing the classic art of puppetry with school children all over the city and region, the Paul Mesner Puppet company performs classic fairy tales like Rapunzel and the Three Little Pigs, opera performances like The Mikado, fables like Anansi the Spider and traditional European slapstick puppet performances like Pulcinella. Their performances were always a special treat when I was a kid. Though I have to admit as an adult without kids, I have rarely thought of any puppets at all in the last decade, other than being mildly creeped out by the occasional ventroloquist's dummy. That changed when my husband Joe had the opportunity to spend two days at Paul Mesner Puppets' facility in August, as a student in Tyler Wirken's documentary photography workshop.
Joe's assignment was to spend the day just documenting all of the activity, work, meetings and rehearsals at the studio. He got to spend two days shooting these talented, funny, dramatic and very friendly people. And after looking through the thousands of photos he shot on those days, you can see the fabulous best of photos all through this post, I know he found a new appreciation for this art form, and so did I vicariously. Since we don't have kids, attending one of the children's puppet shows wasn't a huge draw, but when Joe saw that they were having an adults only Puppet Slam this weekend, we quickly made a date night out of it.
I think television and the internet have changed the way we view entertainment and live performances. The internet and television immediately deliver millions of hours of slick, edited and glossily polished bits of comedy and entertainment. It's pre-processed and focus grouped for maximum enjoyment of the majority, trying to amuse the entire population at large. Puppet theatre is the opposite.
It is small, immediate, close and unspooling right in front of you. It is a delicate flick of the wrist, and slight increase in the movement of the puppeteer's arms to show the prancing of a puppy marionette, it is a tone of voice and an accent to make sure the audience understands that grizzly bear hand puppet is supposed to be Sarah Palin (glasses and a wig helped too.) Puppet performance is detailed. It is careful and measured, and it is incredibly affective when done well. In a small theatre full of people it can be mesmerizing, everyone engaged and watching with great amusement as a red scraggly fox puppet anchors a Fox News report or made slightly uncomfortable by a pink felt vagina puppet making jokes about her Brazilian bikini wax.
The performance I thought was the funniest, and based on audience laughter probably the biggest hit, was an instructional lesson on how to make a puppet out of fresh road kill. Peter Allen, a puppeteer from Jamesport, Missouri, was not only the puppeteer, but he was in character himself. Walking the audience through a lesson in the history of puppets and then a detailed, disgusting lesson plan in making your own road kill puppet, complete with popping eye balls and curled felt intestines, it was gross and hilariously inappropriate.
This is not a puppet show for children. It is profane right down to the Cheezits box representing the baby Jesus in a grocery bag version of the Nativity story, Mary is bottle of Virgin Olive Oil. It is creative and funny and most importantly it was a different way to spend an amusing Saturday night. I highly recommend attending the next Puppet Slam in November. Not every sketch will make you laugh out loud, but those that do, the loose, informal vibe and the artistry and talent of the performers makes it absolutely worth your time. And as a fundraiser for the company, you are helping ensure that little kids all over the Midwest learn to appreciate and understand this beautiful and time honored art form. Take your kids to see Go Dog Go! but get a babysitter and take yourselves to the Puppet Slam. Let's not lose our love for the dynamic and goofy art of puppetry to the powers of YouTube and the DVR.