Some call it the "new vaudeville," and others just see the old vaudeville with a few more piercings and tattoos. Either way, for more than a decade, naked fire-eaters, hipster magicians and old-fashioned fan dancers have shared stages with punks, indie rockers and other young musical stylists.
But where are the puppets?
The world of vaudeville depended on that geezer in pinstripes who kept his arm up the backside of a bickering little man with varnished spinning eyes. On Sunday at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, the voice-throwers, marionettes, talking socks and their floppy friends return with a vengeance for a night of "Puppet Terror."
Curated by Marcus Kuiland-Nazario as part of Highways' Pop Tarts performance series, "Puppet Terror" celebrates the launching of a magazine of the same name published by Pleasant Gehman and Shawna Kenney. Gleefully emblazoned across the cover of the first issue is the disclaimer, "ADULTS ONLY," a useful tip for parents who might consider toting the kids for a weekend outing of puppetry.
Authors Gehman and Kenney unflinchingly embrace sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll as common literary terrain. Kenney's first book, "I Was a Teenage Dominatrix" (Retro Systems, 1999), recounts her means of raising college tuition, earning the author praise from Salon.com as a "Holden Caulfield in leather." That same year, Gehman edited "The Underground Guide to Los Angeles" (Manic D Press) and last year followed up with her semi-autobiographical "Escape From Houdini Mountain" (Manic D Press), exploring the seamy glamour of Hollywood's 1980s rock scene, when Gehman fronted bands such as the Screamin' Sirens and the Ringling Sisters.
Today Gehman and Kenney both work as freelance journalists. "We're so busy with other things," Kenney says, "the very idea of a puppet fanzine was a joke--at first, anyway. Pleasant is 42, and I'm 32. We haven't made 'zines since we were teenagers." But there was something about the old demented cut-and-paste style of 'zines that suited the unsettling qualities of those glassy-eyed creatures.
For Gehman, puppets have always prompted questions about consensual reality, rationality, psychosis. "As a kid, I just thought, why are these grown-ups playing with dolls? Why are they talking in weird voices? They just seemed crazy. I knew those puppets couldn't talk, but it seemed that everybody wanted me to play along," she says. "That was the accepted reality, what a good girl would do."
"Puppet Terror" at Highways will reflect the puppet's role in unraveling the rational. On the bill is the Cinnamon Roll Gang, a local troupe known for phantasmagoric spectacles. Gehman describes it simply as "Muppets on acid" and confesses, "I'm not exactly sure what they'll do this time, but I know it will involve a lot of people and mess."
Also toying with reality will be Paul Zaloom, an artist Kuiland-Nazario describes as someone who "can make an entire opera out of a spoon, a fork and a plate." Zaloom's frenzied wit and slapdash use of everyday objects have earned him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim as well as the starring role in the Emmy Award-winning "Beakman's World," a tweaky kiddie science show that aired on CBS from 1992 to 1997.
Lending ammunition to the notion that puppets are dangerous will be Michelle Berne's 15-foot Celebration Arts Puppets, appropriately attired for the evening in dynamite. Emphasizing the puppet's potential for sin will be Valentina Violette of the burlesque troupe Velvet Hammer, performing a "puppetease" with a diabolical companion.
Gehman recalls puppet shows from her youth that were similarly naughty, "filled with really racy, sexual innuendo, people getting drunk, dummies mouthing off, making rude comments, throwing fits. Puppets were allowed to get away with anything--stuff that would've gotten the puppeteer slapped with a lawsuit."
True to the spirit of children's puppet theater, Kenney and Gehman are planning for audience interaction, distributing handmade sock puppets "so people can meet their neighbor." There will also be a projector for improvising shadow puppets, along with puppet videos and puppet-themed songs. "We're encouraging audience members to bring their own puppets," Gehman says. "We want people to dress in puppet fetish wear too, but that hasn't really quite been defined."
Joining Kenney and Gehman in readings from the first issue of Puppet Terror will be gothic scenester-poet Clint Catalyst and rock 'n'-roll litterateur Iris Berry interviewing a world-weary celebrity sock puppet.
Material from the 30-page fanzine ranges from autobiographical tales of puppet paranoia to puppet haiku, limericks and even excerpts from a master's thesis on puppet history, imparting details of a 16th century English figure of Christ engineered to move its lips and eyes, as well as an account of an enormous funerary puppet in which deceased Bwende chieftains are transported in Zaire.
An undeniable streak of earnest puppet love overlies the atrocities recounted in Puppet Terror, and Gehman is eager to emphasize that she and Kenney "both have a respect for puppetry and puppeteers. It's an art form that's been around for thousands of years, a totally legitimate and wonderful part of theater."
Gehman grew up in the shadow of a mother who had performed with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" fame. Former dominatrix Kenney spent several months during her early teens traveling through Maryland and Virginia with a Church of the Nazarene evangelical puppet troupe. This peculiar admixture of fascination and repulsion naturally lends itself to thoughtful and therapeutic reflection and journalizing.
Kenney and Gehman have only scratched the surface, and submissions from other equally disturbed souls, Kenney says, have not nearly filled out a second issue of Puppet Terror but also demonstrated the epidemic proportions of puppet phobia.
"Puppet Terror," Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Sunday at 8 p.m. (310) 315-1459. $10. For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org