Playwright Robert Askins has inhabited several different universes. He grew up on a tree farm in rural Texas, attended a privileged Baptist private school and now resides in New York City. His latest play, P.S. Jones and the Frozen City, is a follow-up to last year’s surprise hit Hand to God—which featured a demonic puppet in an after-school Christian Puppet Ministries class—and manages to create another universe entirely. P.S. Jones, directed by the sure-handed José Zayas, runs at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City Dec. 5–23.
In the play, a little boy named Pig Shit, or P.S., grows up on a hog farm and dreams of moving to the Frozen City, but he must first cross the forbidden Burning Waste. “It’s a basic hero’s journey,” says Askins, “kind of like a puppet ‘Star Wars.’” But when P.S. arrives in the Frozen City, it’s not what he expected. He must battle a giant spider and ultimately destroy the city in order to start something new. Says director Zayas, “It’s about someone growing up and facing the difference between dreams and reality.”
Askins was inspired by outsider artist Henry Darger’s 720-page book In the Realms of the Unreal. “How do you construct a master narrative in a hyper-narrative environment?” Askins wonders. He employed a Darger technique while mixing genres in order to create something weird and epic.
Is the play political? Zayas reasons, “Any good fantasy set in a post-post-apocolyptic universe is going to be inherently political.” Askins admits that a case could be made that P.S. Jones is about the Occupy movement. “Pig Shit brings down the city because he is so disappointed with it. So in some ways, this play is about the frustration of being young in America—how shall we live now when there is no hope for us to do better than our parents?”
But before you can classify the play as politically minded puppet theatre, Askins merrily interjects, “We like to label shit; that’s the human project! Is this an internal disease or an external problem? Puppets are strange-making objects and lead us to more nuanced understandings. So I like puppets.” And P.S. Jones is anything but didactic. “I want to make big adventurous stories,” Askins says, grinning, “with weirdo characters and a lot of laughter.”