"Uh-oh. Where's the first page?"
The script is tacked to the back wall of the proscenium, just like it's supposed to be, but the opening scene is missing. Artist Eric Junker and his fellow puppeteers, Mitt Seely and Nancy Truman, hiss expletives and search frantically, but it's no use. The house lights dim, the music swells, the spot comes up, and this underground puppet show in a dingy Santa Monica artist's storefront is going to be even more experimental than usual.
A professional voice actor, Truman has the script wired and begins to silently mouth the opening lines to Junker. Literally reading her lips, he tentatively begins the opening sequence of "Monkey Planet," his adaptation of "Planet of the Apes": "I'm, uh, sending my last signal to Earth before we reach our destination . . ." he says, with less certainty than Charlton Heston. Junker makes it to the end of the scene and, on cue, a makeshift spaceship careens over the audience and crashes into the front of the proscenium, distorted explosion noises blasting over the sound system.
The crowd, cynical industry execs and scruffy artists, goes crazy with laughter and applause. And why not? This isn't the Mark Taper Forum; it's Monkey Pete's Puppet Theater, where admission is two bucks, city buses roar 20 feet from the action, refreshments consist of complimentary Tecate, and the host is a fez-wearing, cigarette-smoking, hard-drinking puppet named Monkey Pete.
Junker, the show's producer/writer/director, is a visual artist who got jacked up on puppets after seeing a rendition of "The Three Little Pigs" in the Jardin du Luxembourg. "It was like art, like painting and sculpture, but it was funny and spastic and ancient and alive," Junker says. "Suddenly gallery art seemed very static and irrelevant." He's even launching a Web site (http://www.monkeypete.com) to announce scheduled shows and sell collector's decals.
Truman yanks the rocket ship off the stage and throws it behind her. As the 30-minute performance goes on, the backstage is littered with foam rocks from an avalanche, various puppet parts, a bamboo cage set piece, pages of the script and other show detritus. Going without a script for the first three pages infuses the performance with a wild freshness, and the puppeteers are on fire tonight, joking around, holding the puppets up by their heads, zipping off impromptu one-liners.
At the end, as the main human character (played in the film by Heston) walks up a desolate beach, Junker ad-libs: "Who knows, maybe I'll find some good surf up here." Again, the crowd is right there with him, laughing and shouting its approval. Moments later, Truman raises a cardboard cutout of the Statue of Liberty, and the show is over, for tonight anyway.
I head for the Tecate.