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Puppeteers for Fears debuts 'Robopocalypse: the Musical'

In a futuristic world where artificial intelligence and human life are closely intertwined, AI has evolved to such a powerful state that it controls the world through machine-to-machine communication, and with its own agenda, in Puppeteers for Fears’ new cyberpunk musical comedy.

With hand-held puppets, a live rock band and a multimedia light show, “Robopocalypse: the Musical” is a dystopian vision that hovers between hilarious comedy and a cautionary tale.

The plot centers on the Daniels family. Since the accidental death of her mother, Jolie and her dad a mad professor, scientist and businessman have managed to co-exist. Jolie, in an attempt to better communicate with her father, builds a robot named Spam-Bot for her school’s science fair. However, her creation is so rebellious, she might be the only person who can stop it.

“Robopocalypse: the Musical” plays at 8 p.m. Saturdays, Oct. 20 and Nov. 3, and 2 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 21 and Nov. 4, at Pioneer Hall, 73 Winburn Way, Ashland. Tickets are $10 to $20 and can be purchased brownpapertickets.com or at the door. After its premiere in Ashland and a tour to Corvallis and Yreka, California, “Robopocalypse” returns to the Rogue Valley for performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9-10, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at Collaborative Theater Project, 555 Medford Center. Tickets are $12 to $24, also available at brownpapertickets.com or at the door.

This R-rated puppet extravaganza is the brainchild of playwright, musician and composer Josh Gross, who has performed with local bands since high school. He now plays in psychedelic band Astrofauna.

Gross finds puppet theater a fun way to accommodate his fan base. As his friends got older, he says, they didn’t want to go to rowdy rock shows anymore.

He finds puppet theater a new and unusual way to tell stories and wants to explore it on a deeper level.

“It broadens the palate of storytelling,” Gross says. “People don’t say what they mean, they talk around issues, but a puppet can say things that are a lot more honest. It blunts the blow a little bit.

“Since puppets are not photo-realistic, anything can be a character. Most of the characters in this show are inanimate objects. There’s a kitsch factor to it, which speaks to people. It’s a thing you’re familiar enough to be comfortable with. But then, we take it in a whole new direction.”

There is a trend of making everything connect to the Web, including kitchen appliances. In “Robopocalypse,” machines take on individual personalities and human emotions including revenge. An Uber and a broadband-linked toaster can commit crimes together commanded by a maniacal force, the Artificial Consciousness Experiment.

Part of the inspiration for “Robopocalypse” was the phenomenon of “internet of things,” the network of vehicles, home appliances and other items with embedded electronics and connectivity enabling them to communicate. We have integrated technology into our lives, but we aren’t thinking about what happens if it goes wrong. What happens if it fails?

Art and media designer Aubry Hollingshead’s light show, with digital multimedia backdrops, sets the tone of the show by immersing us in the ‘80s-style computer world. Elements of the story are hidden in rich images with lasers, grids and shadows. The media and art design become a character in and of itself.

Director Alyssa Marie Mathews said she was drawn to the story.

“This script really hits deep,” she says. “Every character fights to get through a lot of trauma and make sense of it in building a brave new world.”

Lauren Taylor plays Jolie Daniels; Hunter Prutch plays her dad, the mad Wilson H. Daniels; Spam-Bot is played by Katy Curtis; Rachel Routh is A.C.E.; Reece Bredl is Uber and Chip McDougan; and Forest Gilpin plays B.L.T., the broadband-linked toaster.

The live band includes Gross on synthesizers, Derek Deon on guitars, Beau Shepherd on bass and Brandon Amadour on drums. Puppets are by Francesca Solano.

Puppeteers for Fears often performs in found locations, such as bars and storefronts, to a previously untapped market audiences that are overlooked by the theater establishment.

Its first play was “Cattle Mutilation: The Musical.” When Big Foot and Big Foot Hunter are abducted by a UFO, an alien mad scientist sews them into the same body. With songs such as “Two Heads are Better Than One,” the play is about learning to get along with someone who you’ve always considered your enemy.

“‘Robopocalypse’ is the pinnacle of everything we’ve been working on ... with the technology and pop culture we’ve grown up with,” Gross says.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer based in Ashland. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.

Cast and puppets of Puppeteers for Fears' new "Robopocalypse: the Musical," by Josh Gross. Photo by Aubry Hollingshead