‘Famous Puppet Death Scenes’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company


Ready for some comic puppet anarchy? Ready for some situational, very visual humor within nearly two dozen short puppet-driven skits? Ready to indulge into, of all things, existential takes on death?

Photo by Jason Stang Photography.
Photo by Jason Stang Photography.

Now don’t answer just yet. Let’s throw out a cultural reference quiz that might help get you into a seat at the Old Trout Puppet Workshop‘s production of Famous Puppet Death Scenes currently at Woolly Mammoth. And if not you, then a Holiday gift of tickets for those you know who have that kind-of crooked way of looking at the world: one that leaves you with a tilted head of quizzical bewilderment.

So here we go: Ernie Kovacs, Mad Magazine, Pee Wee Herman, Monty Python, the Muppets, all the new folk making short-take Vines and You Tube vids and long-form graphic novels.

I for one, am the sort with an off-center way at looking at the world. For me the evening was inspired and transgressive, concluding with two final skits of such poignancy, I thought I was truly in a house of worship where a “sky pilot” finally made sense to me on matters of one’s final breaths.

Who is this Old Trout Puppet Workshop producing this lunacy? The Old Trout Puppet Workshop was founded in Alberta, Canada in 1999. The group came up with the notion to use old sorts of puppets as their theatrical calling card. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop uses a broad collection of puppets in their performance, as well as showcasing some real people in dark suits who become visible at times.

From a review of marketing material the puppets include marionettes, hand -puppets, rod puppets, wooden-head puppets, balloon-like inflatable puppet heads and God-knows what else.

The broad idea behind Famous Puppet Death Scenes is to depict the puppets finding their Maker. These are “no mere blocks of wood” as one of the re-occurring puppets, ‘says’ near the top of the 90 minute, intermission free production. The show is kept moving by one of the puppets as a sort of variety show headliner named Nathanial Tweak.

OK, I am not going to name each scene or name each puppet. You will have to see for yourself.

There are skits with these impressions: a Sam Shepard drama with music accomplished with a large pop-up book and a scream; the closing of a whale’s eye that the Green Movement could adopt, an Albert Einstein-looking ‘actor’ puppet who is an arrogant fool; a giant magnifying glass that reminded me of the recent Isabella Rossellini Green Porno at Lisner Auditorium; several totally Terry Gilliam sight gags such as one involving a bellows and another involving many,many, many steps with a fall at the end and a scream;  two brothers who make a third brother sad with their impetuous boyish boorish behavior, as well as a scene out of Les Miz,  why one should not dress up as a deer during hunting season and reactions to seeing the turmoil of life after witnessing a puppet death. And of course, there is love, or a puppet facsimile. The list could go on  Why ruin it for you.

But it was the arc of the production that took caused my jaw to drop as the show moved from its initial flamboyant humor to the final two scenes as wooden puppets were lovingly cradled by large beings.  I can tell you that I truly felt sad for those blocks of wood and wanted to recite “Kaddish” or light a candle.

Photo by Jason Stang Photography.
Photo by Jason Stang Photography.

So who are the humans behind all the unexpected but delightful quirkiness.   The Woolly program lists the starring humans are Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes, and Viktor Lukawski. Tim Sutherland was director  for the original production while Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes, and Judd Palmer directed this current remount. Samantha Hindle is the technical director of what is a very complex undertaking. She is also head of sound for what is a very packed with meticulous sound production. Jen Gareau and Sarah Malik are responsible for the wonderfully detailed puppet’s costumes while Cimmeron Meyer accomplished the imaginative varied mood-rendering lighting design. Mike Rinaldi’s sound design runs the gamut from serious classic works to jaunty foreign language love songs; from the marching feet of military troops to creaking doors in a menacing  alley way.

No specific credit is provided for the art deco appearing puppet theater exterior set design. The exterior includes a central ‘play’ area surrounded by two side areas for kibitzing. The interior design work for the skits is marvelously detailed small-scale workmanship. One setting truly rivaled the “empty tables” in Les Miz while another matched up with many a film noir exterior one can recall.

As for that company name, “Old Trout”? Seems that on the ranch where the company first got together there was a swimming hole. In that swimming hole, according to Old Trout material, “it is said, there lives an ancient fish, who will answer any question you ask it, if you can swim deep enough to find it. Our company is named after that noble creature, even though truth be told we never did manage to find it.”

So there you have it. The “Old Trout” puppets can convey real deep feelings with their precise, choreographed movements. At other times, the puppets and their masters just bring great fun; nothing deeper. Not all the skits are successful, but the batting average for the 22 skits is quite high.

Phew; religion and metaphysics in a puppet show!  Well, as Woolly Literary Assistant Olivia Haller put it, “to make the cruel world slightly more hospitable to the yearning and fragile souls that inhabit it.” Yup.

Just be warned. Best, if you have a sly, if not slightly twisted sense of humor about what awaits us all. Wait, that is way too deep. Let’s say you crave some balance with your Holiday sugarplum sweetness. So, here ya’ go. Famous Puppet Death Scenes at Woolly is the place to be. Bring along some friends to partake of what is truly and now for something completely different.”

Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.


Famous Puppet Death Scenes plays through January 4, 2015, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

Note: An interview with the puppet star of Famous Puppet Death Scenes in the Washington Post by Nelson Pressley.


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