By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Matthew Posey does things with puppets no child should ever witness. Posey's Balanced Almond troupe is at it again over at The Ochre House performance space by Fair Park, with the fourth and filthiest installment in a series of X-rated comedies built around a puppet character named Coppertone. Is it funny? Well, maybe if you're really drunk (this theater serves beer and wine for free with the price of a ticket, so that's possible). Is it offensive? Intentionally so. Is it art? Depends on what your definition of "is" is.
Coppertone IV: Hell continues through December 19 at The Ochre House. Call 214-826-6273.
Santa’s Holiday for Strings: A Puppetry Extravaganza continues through December 22 at Dallas Children’s Theater. Call 214-740-0051.
The setting in Coppertone IV: Hell, written and directed by Posey, is just what it says. Coppertone—imagine a half-sized man with one hand and a head the size and color of a small cabbage (Posey puppeteers him)—is dead and confused about his consignment to a netherworld decorated with Christmas tinsel and candy canes. His tour guide through the cheerful anterooms of Hades is an old friend from the lunatic asylum in Coppertone III. Burny (Trent Stephenson, manning a puppet with a charred face and dirty bathrobe) explains that "hell's like the mall—a constant, even temperature." He also tells the little cabbage-headed freak who, come to think of it, bears an alarming resemblance to Nicolas Cage, that he's arrived in hell for "committing the sin of stupidity."
There's a chance for Coppertone to escape eternal damnation. Like Ebenezer Scrooge—you might remember him from another, less expletive-filled holiday play—Coppertone is taken on a journey back through his disgusting, degenerate life. If he can see the error of his ways, Coppertone might find redemption. But besides atoning for his many indiscretions—what he does to a girl-puppet named Topeka would make Marilyn (and possibly Charlie) Manson recoil in horror—he also must "make friends with the vagina...you don't get out of hell unless you make friends with the vagina," Burny says.
That's not a metaphor. There is a 7-foot-tall, rosy-colored vagina onstage that serves as the portal to the rest of hell. Where a doorknocker might be, dangles a hot pink clitoris the size of a ruby red grapefruit.
Forgot to mention: This is a musical. Not exactly Avenue Q. More like Avenue Triple-X.
Next to the tiny Ochre House stage (where Posey also dwells when he's not performing puppet anarchy), Romp Almighty musicians—Laura Harrell, dressed as an angel with feathery wings and halo, and Trey Pendergrass, wearing red horns on his jaunty white hat—play guitar, percussion and keyboards. Among the tunes in this show are an original ditty called "I'm Happy in Hell" and a rendition of "Silent Night" sung by the band and the cast while a puppet Satan (Ross Mackey) attempts intercourse with the giant va-jay-jay. (I now worry about my own status in the afterlife just for watching that.)
You've heard of the anti-Christ? Coppertone IV is the anti-Christmas. Disparaging things are said in this production about the Virgin Mary and her offspring. The puppets perform a nativity scene (with a green-headed Baby Jesus) so foulmouthed and sacrilegious, if word of it gets to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, there could be a cluster-Fox of news crews on the Ochre House steps for weeks to come.
Posey loves to blow South Park-ian razzberries at religion and pop culture. Besides attacking Christianity, Posey, in the guise of his bizarre puppet persona, assails many things happy and wholesome. The cute orphans of Annie all should go to hell for the sin of having hope, Coppertone says. The Sound of Music and TV cooking shows get the business. The phrase "ball sweat" is used liberally by every character in Coppertone IV and in a variety of contexts, each ruder than the last. References to tampons and "rectal seepage" abound.
Coppertone, the character, does achieve some level of salvation when another depraved puppet, Nickels (Kevin Grammer), makes Satan realize that "the world needs stupidity. The most joyous things come from it."
Stupid it is, but "joyous" is not the word for Coppertone IV: Hell. This is not a show to see on a blind date or with your Catholic grandmother or if you are in the throes of an existential crisis.
Should you even see it at all? Only if you're up for something dark, dark, dark.
Gross and offensive as they are, there is something strange and brilliant in Posey's pornographic puppet shows. They break rules and stomp all over the bounds of good taste. They are sometimes hilarious and always provocative. Art is supposed to be all that. But few theaters who want to sell more than a handful of tickets to half in-the-bag hipsters (the usual Ochre House audience) ever go this far. The safe zone is better box office.
If there's any meaningful message in Coppertone IV's "piss on earth, good swill to men" attitude toward Christmas, it might be this: We complain about the exploitation of a religious holiday and then willingly participate in its gooey excesses. Posey and his crude characters just go ahead and say what the rest of us never would out loud and in public. Sometimes it takes a puppet pointing a middle finger at cultural hypocrisy for us to see the errors of our ways.
Need a cleansing experience after that? The best antidote is Santa's Holiday for Strings: A Puppetry Extravaganza, a one-hour musical comedy confection by the Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts in the Studio space at Dallas Children's Theater. This one is definitely for kids—family-friendly, beautifully designed, and warm and witty in ways that appeal to audiences of all ages.
A marionette Santa Claus greets the audience with the puppeteer, Douglass Burks, in full view. He's followed by Frosty the Snowman, another marionette who "ice skates" all over the stage. A family of life-sized penguin puppets waddle out to do a charming jig.
Seeing the artists—Kathy Burks, Sally Fiorello, Patricia Long, Becky Burks Keenan, Ziggy Renner, Marco Salinas and B. Wolf—work the puppets is a lot of the fun of this show. They expertly, seamlessly transition among black-theater puppets (where the puppeteers, dressed all in black, are hidden out of the light), hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, black-light figures and the use of abstract shapes and fabrics in place of puppets.
Children at the sold-out performance reviewed laughed loudest and longest at a sequence involving a little Christmas tree and some errant decorations. Four shiny red ornaments roll away from the tree, bounce off a teddy bear's head and engage in a rhythmic ballet with a strand of shimmery silver garland. Enchanting.
Three ingeniously designed cat marionettes do a "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies." A "humanette" sings about wanting his two front teeth for Christmas. A lady armadillo shows how to decorate a cactus (watch for the puppet rattlesnakes). And "Ranger Bob," who borrows William H. Macy's dontcha-know accent from Fargo, enlists the audience's help in spotting some flying reindeer.
A G-rated delight and for all a good night.