WASHINGTON, D.C.: “It’s like a catharsis Gatling gun.”
That’s puppet artist Judd Palmer’s tongue-in-cheek description of Famous Puppet Death Scenes, a production slated to turn Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company into a whimsical Stygian shore from Dec. 9 to Jan. 4. Created and performed by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop of Canada, the show presents 22 mortality-themed excerpts from the masterpieces of the puppet-theatre canon. We’re talking about…um…“DungBeetle’s Lament” from Lizzie Fook’s magnum opus Flap Flap Flap; “Bipsy’s Mistake,” from Fun Freddy’s immortal Bipsy and Mumu Go to the Zoo; “Edward’s Last Meal,” from The Ballad of Edward Grue….
If you’re cottoning on to the sly conceit here, that’s okay. Famous Puppet Death Scenes is cheekily waggish, while also being—on some level—serious. The puppets’ quietus moments are “hilarious” but collectively add up to “a spiritual and profound show about death and how we think about death,” says Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz.
After seeing the piece years ago at the Under the Radar festival in New York City, Shalwitz pursued the Trouts, in his words, “like a rabid dog” until they agreed bring the show to Woolly. “I think there was a restraining order, and it expired,” jokes Old Trout veteran Peter Balkwill of Shalwitz’s quest.
Speaking from their workshop in Calgary via Skype, Balkwill and Palmer, along with another company stalwart, Pityu Kenderes, remember coming up with the idea for Famous Puppet Death Scenes during the run of an earlier production: Pinocchio. In the Old Trout version of the tale, echoing Carlo Collodi’s dark 19th-century text, Pinocchio killed the wise-cricket character with a hammer.
As the tool repeatedly walloped the insect, Palmer remembers, the audience’s reactions fluctuated. “At first they were shocked,” he recalls. “There was the intake of breath; and they laughed; and then it actually started to seem terribly sad; and then tragic; and then this great existential hole opened in the theatre, and everybody fell through it and came out the other end, feeling happy!”
The Trouts decided that it would be rewarding to create an anthology of such puppet demises, putting theatregoers on a philosophically plunging emotional rollercoaster. “It is kind of liberating, in a lot of regards,” Balkwill says. “The puppet allows us to look at the magnitude of the theme.”