Friday, January 13, 2017

The self in fabric, foam, felt, glue, needle and thread: 'Puppet Man' explores freedom through puppet play

Theatre on the Square's focus on Indiana playwrights takes center stage to start the New Year, with Andy Black's "Puppet Man" on the main stage and Lou Harry's "Clutter" on Stage Two, both opening Jan. 12.

"Puppet Man" nis both coarse and sweet in tracing a fragile prisoner's redemption through the art and craft of puppetry. "Pretty Boy" DuPree is taken into a small class run by the worldly wise, idealistic "Doc" Markos, played with mother-hen solicitude by Miki Mathioudakis. The troupe regularly performs fairy tales with handmade puppets for the children of prison visitors. Contrary to much of what one reads today about the purpose of imprisonment, rehabilitation remains a goal in this institution. Yet daily life there doesn't seem subject to close, enlightened supervision.

Inmates of a correctional institution scrutinize "Pretty Boy" DuPree in TOTS' production.
As for the main character's turn toward puppetry, there is no evident artist in "Pretty Boy" crying to get out. His ulterior motive is to get his hands on contraband materials he can turn over to a predatory inmate called "Word" in order to support his drug habit. "Word" is a savage entrepreneur in the performance of Carey Shea. He embodies the lupine sneakiness of the villain in "Little Red Riding-Hood," the frame tale in puppetry that surrounds the action.

The play thus presents layers of manipulation, including DuPree's sexual exploitation by Pete Cunningham, a prison guard (Bradford Reilly). The humiliation drives him deeper within, where he's already nursing guilt about the fact that his crime led to his innocent girlfriend's conviction. Taylor Cox plays "Pretty Boy" as hapless and struggling, carrying a full load of anxiety that crosses over into auditory hallucinations when the drugs he pries from "Word" fail to calm him. Cox's opening-night performance was affecting and aptly claustrophobic: DuPree's constrained world seems to be closing in upon him. If the characterization hadn't prodded the actor toward near-inaudibility from time to time, it would have been just right.

A strong didactic strain permeates Black's script, though director Ty Stover seems to have been alert to keep the dramatic elements foremost. There's vivid believability in the troupe's other members: the flamboyantly "out" "Fantasia" (Josiah McCruiston), the wary "Sidewinder" (Josh Ramsey), and the guarded yet heroic "Dayton" (Matt Anderson).

The playwright may have meant the metaphorical significance of puppetry to run riot over the show; I can't be sure. The lessons "Pretty Boy" absorbs from "Doc" Markos and Dayton become somewhat preachy, it's true. And there is a lot of tying up of plot ends in the second act, including the guard's unlikely explanation to "Pretty Boy" of the reason for the lockdown alarm.

The puppets used, as directed by Patrick Weigand (who also headed the construction team) are marvelously crafted creatures. They support in every respect the show's reliance on the value of healthy illusions. But manipulation in a good cause can be just as limiting as the other kind.

I think we are meant to feel "Pretty Boy" has achieved a kind of liberation at the end. The question remains: How much does "Pretty Boy" ever command sufficient inner resources to take some control over his situation? We are asked to believe that he brings long-hidden resources of his own to bear, but is he mastering puppetry, or has puppetry mastered him?

I was left with the impression that Andy Black was more intent on displaying his control as creator over his characters. The grand finale of the puppet show that makes up this two-acter's final scene buoys us up. It also suggests that whatever positive messages we internalize are pulling our strings. They could be the unseen hand that makes manifest our actions and thoughts just as much as those private demons we struggle to suppress or defeat. In that sense, as Elvis sang 60 years ago in a song that's part of the show's sound design, everybody is dancing to the jailhouse rock.