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A horror puppet musical for adults

Puppeteers for Fears are currently touring their latest extravaganza, “The Trilogy of Terror” written by Artistic Director Josh Gross. I saw a technical rehearsal of the first play of the Trilogy, “The Mummy’s Purse.” It features a rock band, extraordinary puppets, projections, and profound hilarity. I met with Gross and his puppet designer, Brook Sharp, at Mix.

EH: What was the genesis of the puppet musical?

JG: I got into writing plays, but I’d played music all of my life, and I wondered if I could write a musical. Not everything works as a musical. It has to have certain themes and a certain ridiculousness for people to spontaneously burst into song. Puppets and horror are absurd enough for a musical.

I searched for the least appropriate topic for a musical to make it as ridiculous as possible. I did some on-line polling and somehow settled on serial killers. I decided “Ritual Murder, The Musical” was going to be the topic of this first piece. That went really well.

Puppets can seem bigger than they really are. People accept a certain level of ridiculousness with them. If you have good writing, and you make it fun, you can get away with a lot.

EH: What is the essence of comedy?

JG: The academic take is: Something that is wrong, but not threateningly wrong. It’s both wrong and right at the same time. The humor lies in the contradiction. It is absurdity: things that don’t seem that they should go together do go together. Here we don’t have a kid show — but puppets; and people think that puppets are for kids. In “The Mummy’s Purse” we have puppets singing about hegemony, the third world, perpetual poverty and oligarchy. These are not things you expect in a puppet show about mummies. That’s what makes it funny.

People experience puppets the same way they experience cartoons: they’re simplified — more iconographic representations — of people. Because it blurs some of the details, they absorb things with a less critical eye for suspension of disbelief. There is no point where people think they are actually real.

In our show there’s a lot of fourth-wall breakage: We talk to the audience. The more you bring the audience into the show; the more it makes them feel part of the performance. That gives them ownership of it.

BS: Puppets can get away with more than actors. They make it easier to receive the type of humor that gets thrown out there.

JG: You don’t ever think it’s real; your brain processes it as more of a concept. It’s a perceptual filter. Consequently you can have a puppet say things that you would never be able to have an actor say. Some of the shows that we write — are only comedies because they are performed with puppets. It gives you a lot of latitude. It opens up whole new avenues of comedy and song.

EH: What is the magic of live performance?

JG: It’s like rituals — that speak to certain components of who we are — in a secular fashion. It is core to who we are. We have this need to experience something together. It’s communion.

Ashland performances begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 19 and 20; and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 21, at Oberon's Three-Penny Tavern, Ashland. Admission is $8 at the door. The show moves to Hilltop Music, Phoenix, for a show starting at 8 p.m., Friday, May 26 (tickets are $10 in advance); The Sound Lounge, Grants Pass, 8 p.m. Saturday, May 27 ($10 advance); and the Camelot Theater, Talent, 8 p.m. June 5 and 6 ($10 advance). More information is available at Facebook.com/ PuppeteersForFears, and at www.PuppeteersForFears.com. You can also email puppeteersforfears@gmail.com or call playwright/producer Josh Gross at 503-347-2389.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding cast member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.