Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Crapstall Street Boys, Trouble Puppet Theatre Company at SVT, 1/24-2/05

Crapstall Street Boys Trouble Puppet Theatre Company, Austin TX

by Michael Meigs

Perhaps it's inherent to the art form, but I did have a moment of wondering whether we ought to be concerned about our Connor.

The Crapstall Street Boys is captivating puppetry and story telling, as is always the case with the Trouble Puppet Theatre Company, a crew of talented and devoted colleagues and acolytes who've gathered around Connor Hopkins. This time the approach is announced as "Czech puppetry" -- small articulated figures at the end of a long rigid wand. The characters are anything but stiff, for with the deft and delicate handling of that single attachment, TP members achieve convincing body English and even give those glassy little eyes a hint of emotion. Or, often, a suggestion of wonder, sometimes one of bewilderment.

The presentation of this fable imagined by our Connor takes place on a lengthy table provided with folding cut-out scenery constructed on the scale of the tiny boys. Hopkins puts a narrator into the piece to assist the puppeteers. Steve Moore sits at stage right in a comfortable chair with a large book before him, setting the scene and explaining some of the action as it occurs. Connor, Caroline Reck, Rob Jacques and Lucie Cunningham move a number of tiny folk through the story -- the protagonist, addressed only as "You, lad!" and his dull-witted and venial parents, a factory owner who buys young boys for a mysterious assembly line, a dog and a chicken, a couple of ravening monsters that sail in as hand puppets to gobble the unwary, and the boys of the factory at Crapstall Street.

The table action is quick and menacing, presenting a grim dog-eat-dog story -- almost literally -- as YouLad is cast into subhuman circumstances similar to the pitiless meat processing lines depicted so vividly by the company in their adaptaion of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. In the miserably exploited work team YouLad makes a friend, the equally lost young fellow named Little Pig who counsels him how to survive. One by one, while struggling frantically for food, young workers disappear and the monsters are afoot.

Erin Meyer is assigned a puppetcam. She follows the action at times and grainy black-and-white images appear on a screen high behind the puppeteers. The duality between puppet action and video action is disconcerting, perhaps deliberately so. The video presentation was intermittent and somewhat erratic; whether that was deliberate or due to equipment malfunction was unclear.

Crapstall Street is a grim place, friends, and the message is one of ceaseless, animal exploitation of man by man, children by parents, humankind by lurking evil. The medium is accomplished but the message is harrowing.

Has our Connor experienced unhappinesses that must be worked out through fable? Puppeteers are necessarily manipulators of their story-telling instruments, and perhaps that shapes a world view -- elsewhere, more commonly, a Howdy Doody happy freneticism, but here the a sophisticated, emphatic conviction that the characters embodied by these puppets are either powerless or brutal.

Perhaps we should sit Connor and friends down with their opening act, Darren Petersen the juggler, patter man, dog trainer and unicyclist of Circus Chickendog, who's as breezily upbeat as the TP piece is gloomy. That would make for some very entertaining group therapy. And for this FronteraFest Long Fringe production made of roughly equal parts of Chickendog and Crapstall, it would achieve an average mood of just about, "It's all right, mate!"

by Hannah Bisewski

As part of Austin’s 2012 Fronterafest Trouble Puppet Theatre Company stages performs a haunting nd unapologetically macabre piece at their home venue the Salvage Vanguard Theatre. The Crapstall Street Boys by TP leader Connor Hopkins tells the story of a factory employing boys, located in the heart of a town overrun by monsters. YouLad’s parents sell him to the factory in exchange for the money that will buy them a “monster masher” to protect themselves, and he starts to notice something strange happening around him. Some boys in the factory disappear;, others grow bigger and bigger.

The puppets in the show are dark, nearly grotesque, but appropriately so. In keeping with that style is the technique of using a small camera inserted shakily into scenes, projecting images in eerie night-vision blur onto the projection screen above the puppet set. A brisk, deep violin piece accompanies the more frenetic action of the puppets, and when it returns at the close of the show it hints at the eerie events that will continue to haunt the small village.

Narrated by Steve Moore as a sort of demented bedtime story, The Crapstall Street Boys inevitably reminds you of the more macabre fairy tales that colored your childhood. The sheer morbidity of The Crapstall Street Boys may remind you of how dark these stories really were. Maybe this particular fairytale isn’t much of a parody after all.

All in all, the show, directed and designed by Connor Hopkins, is a fine piece of puppet theatre and an excellent showing on Trouble Puppet’s part.

Review by Cate Blouke for the Stateman's Seeing Things blog, January 25

Comments by Elizabeth Cobbe for the Austin Chronicle, January 26 (215 words)


A message from Connor Hpopkins in the program leaflet:

Director's Note: If you've ever seen a Trouble Puppet show before, it will be quite clear to you what a departure from our usual form this one represents. A different sort of puppet, a different sort of story (although our traditional themes get in there: capitalism, cannibalism, corruption ... ), and a new technological tool in the live-feed camera traveling around onstage with the puppets: these all make this show a big experiment for us. So our hope is that what the show lacks in mastery and technique it makes up for in innovation, and, well, the puppets are real cute. Plus we've got Steve Moore. So how far wrong can you go, in that situation? I know, I shouldn't ask.

Anyway, thanks for coming out, and we hope you enjoy our stab at this style. Also, we're taking a poll: I originally conceived Crapstall as a kids' show. Having seen it, do you or do you not think this show could be a kids' show? I say yes; others say that would be a prosecutable act. Tell us what you think. And if it goes well, look for a more developed version sometime in the future. If it doesn't go well, let us never speak of this again

Click to view the program leaflet for The Crapstall Street Boys:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for coming out to the show & writing up our little experiment! I just want to mention that the style of puppetry is derived from Czech Marionettes, not Scottish. (Though we were inspired/ fueled by certain Scotch beverages.) Thanks, Michael!