Spine: ‘Famous Puppet Death Scenes’

Gordon Craig, one of the early giants of modern theatre, provocatively wrote: “There is only one actor – nay one man – who has the soul of the dramatic poet, and who has ever served as the true and loyal interpreter of the poet. This is the Marionette.”

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

Watching the Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Famous Puppet Death Scenes, now on stage at Woolly Mammoth, it is easy to agree with Craig’s statement. For each of the twenty plus famous death scenes is but a poem dressed in theatrical brilliance.

Some of these deaths are lyrically gorgeous creations that linger like a whale’s eye before a fanatical Ahab. Some are akin to limericks, funny and having the reputation of being a tad naughty. Some are narrative thrillers with an Usheresque sense of menace. A few are but haikus, little more than bubbles floating over the apron before disappearing in a breeze. And then there are the Eulogies, as somber as the final breath of a dying grand dame, and just as poignant.

Whatever your taste in puppet-poetry might be, you are sure to find a few famous verses that transfix, a few more that appeal to your intellect. You will also find even more that linger long in your poetic heart, seemingly ready to burst full bloom at the first aquifer.

For our review of Famous Puppet Death Scenes click here.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes is, however, no simple smorgasbord of carnage, Punch and Judy fun, or somber dyin.  What makes this show such a unique experience is its venerable, and veritable host, Nathanial Tweak. Yes, he is as real as any puppet you are likely to meet.

And he is on a mission, a mission of humanity. He wants us to care about these puppet-deaths: for if we care about the souls here extinguished (or freed) during each puppet’s encounter with mortality, then we might care about each death, each soul met with its own final embrace and, in so caring, embrace much more deeply and longingly all those souls we engage.

Because, truth be told, one never knows when death might take one, as the main character in Nordo Frot’s “The Feverish Heart,” the evening’s opening death scene, makes clear. In this trilogy with epilogue, death’s bounty comes in the guise of a large fist and, although we may hope with all our hearts that our Everyman will avoid the pitfalls of falling and flinging fists, we can do nothing to prevent that mortal coil from asserting itself, again and again and again. If only all “mortalities” were given to such rebirths.

And then there is “The Swede of Donnylargan.” Now, on more than one occasion I wondered silently while giggling: how might one feel about said “Famous Death” if one had recently experienced the “said death” of a loved one? Might one take offense?  Might one cry running from the theatre? The suicide death of the “The Swede” bought such a perspective to mind on more than one occasion.

But then, after all, perspective plays such a beautiful role in these Famous Deaths. Not just how one might look at death, but how death might look at you, or look to you. Or how the characters who face death might face you or you them. But, literally, the theatrical angles of perception offered by the Old Trout in this wonderful collection of Famous Deaths truly rattles the consciousness.

With each scene you find yourself growing accustomed to the alternate reality offered to you: be it a more traditional hand puppet-man or a strange hand puppet “Puppenspiel” or puppets strapped to knees or life-sized puppets lying down asleep and breathing or puppet-balloons or puppets as a girl’s little Lego-like characters or puppets as–you get the picture. In fact, so many puppets in all their various guises enter the stage that when a person enters, a real person–I mean, a human being like you and me–the real person seems more puppet-like than the puppets themselves.

And death, well death seems more real as well when puppets do the dying, as when Nathanial Tweak offers us “The Perfect Death Scene.” We can watch patiently as his final breath is taken.

For humans, however, death has that surreal quality to it, as if one should say: “Is this really happening?”  Of course it is; it always does, sooner or later; but, more often than not, one is still taken by surprise.

Finally, sometimes in theatre strange intersections happen, between the aesthetic space of the stage and the lived space of the audience. Sometimes those intersections are intentional; sometimes not so much.

On the one hand the pure aesthetic beauty of texture and light, simplicity of movement and purpose offered by Famous Puppet Death Scenes delights the imagination. And, as host puppet Nathaniel Tweak makes clear: Puppets Lives Matter.

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

For with each death witnessed on stage, those puppets offer us a brief glimpse at our own fragile mortality, and the precious gift life is, and friendship is, and love is.

On the other hand, as I sat in the Woolly auditorium experiencing the death of so many puppets, in so many gruesome and spectacular and everyday ways, each one asking me to care for a “pretend” life that’s passing, I couldn’t help but think of the protests currently roiling the United States and much of the world. Each protest brings our attention to the deaths of so many young men at the hands of the police.

So, in that strange intersection, between a marvelously wonderful evening of puppetry and death in all its glorious variety and the real life injustices of deaths on the streets or in the parks or in the Walmarts of America, might each death, both on and off video, rattle the conscience of us all, saying: Black Lives Matter too.

How wonderful this theatre can be! How provocative its inventions! How possible its renewal!

Running Time: 75 minutes without 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.


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