Monday, June 30, 2014

Macabre Marionette Mastery - Figura Theater Festival

As a kid, I had a puppet that my grandparents brought back from one of their snowbird missions to Mexico.  While their intentions were sweet and full of love, the puppet was terrifying.  Its soul-sucking eyes, wispy tufts of black hair, and eerie distorted smile didn't resonate so well with my six-year-old overly active imagination.  In general, I have never been a huge fan of puppets, clowns, living statues, or magicians.  And yes, I pronounce that last word - "magicians"- with a drawn-out, notable disdain.
Hi there!  Mind if I join your dreams?

So for the weeks leading up to the Figura Theaterfestival here in Baden, I spent a good deal time chuckling over the silliness of it all and spitting out Pinocchio puns.  Puppets are everywhere here - museums, street performances, clubs for making name it, they've got it.  Sure, I could respect the longstanding tradition of puppet theater in Europe, I just didn't understand the appeal.  

Nick and I happened to be discussing the festival over a pint at Pickwick's when he mentioned, "So these puppet shows aren't just for kids.  Supposedly they have adult shows."  

I eyed him, "Like what?  Like triple-x puppet shows?  I don't believe it."

"No, seriously.  I've heard they can be pretty racy and violent." Nick explained.  

As we finished our drinks, we heard music coming from around the corner in the Kirchplatz.  Curious, we wandered over to see what was starting and came across a small stage getting ready to host a show for the festival called "Freakshow."  Since the show was shortly going to begin, Nick and I decided to stay for a bit to see what all the fuss was about and to see just how "adult" this puppet show would get.  As we waited, we examined a small stand with posters advertising something called "Parasite Circus" and suddenly a mysterious French man appeared at my side and said, "Are you interested in coming to the splatter show?  You really shouldn't miss it."

"What exactly is a splatter show?" I asked.

"Oh, it's about blood.  Lots of blood.  And love and life.  You'll be frightened, you'll cry, and you'll be amazed," stated Mr. Tall Dark and Creepy, sporting an incredibly enthusiastic grin. "Don't miss it.  Tomorrow night just over there by the church."  And as fast as he appeared, he faded back into the crowd.

Best sales pitch ever.  I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Stephen King wasn't orchestrating this weirdness.  The stage lights flickered as dissonant calliope music played and huge billows of fog rolled forth.  We took our seats and prepared ourselves for Freakshow.

We were not prepared. 

What ensued was an hour of half puppet, half performance art insanity.  A Cockney baby giving a soliloquy about its abandonment, disproportionate humanoids dancing, a polar bear trying to put on a dress, and a jaw-dropping wolf man getting “dismembered.”  The kind of thing that you’re not sure why you’re watching, but you just can’t look away and later you say, “ that happened.” 

Did I mention this is right in front of a church?
The next evening, we showed up early for Parasite Circus' splatter show and choose seats near the back after seeing the evidence on the ground and benches of just how far the splatter from the previous show traveled.  Luckily, they provided the front row "splash zone" spectators with a Sea World inspired plastic sheet.  

Zola, Serge, and Pinky Bunny
To summarize the show: a duo of half-crazed, traveling puppeteers, Zola and Serge, emerge disheveled and seemingly hung-over from their dilapidated red, gypsy caravan. They announce the circus and one by one, the duo performs acts in which each of the puppets befall disturbing and very bloody accidents.  However, the act is not just about senseless brutality.  It is just as much about the puppeteers and their relationship and lives as it is about the puppet circus that they manipulate - and shockingly, at the end it is quite beautiful.  

Definitely not for everyone, but a must-see for fans of the darker side of humor.

Here is clip of Parasite Circus from the duo's YouTube channel.  Keep in mind, probably not the most work safe - also, in French, so I'm not sure what exactly they are saying. We saw the show in German and it wasn't too naughty:

So I conclude this post with a recantation of my previous prejudices against puppets.  I found these performances, while a bit ghoulish, to be fairly thought-provoking.  

But I still stand by my ruling on magicians.