When Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett's outrageous Norma Desmond-esque automaton graced the cover of American Theatre magazine in the year 2000, it paved the way for a puppet revolution. Until then, puppetry for adults had been mostly absent from modern stages. Four years later, when Connor Hopkins founded Trouble Puppet Theater Company in Austin, plenty of adults still needed convincing that this was not an art form strictly for tots.
Several prestigious awards and 10 fruitful years later, TPTC has established itself as one of the most revered theatre companies in the city, consistently producing work as thoughtful as it is spellbinding. Although its shows are frequently replete with profanity and puppet-shagging, The Crapstall Street Boys is touted as – surprise! – appropriate for ages 8 and up. To test the waters, I step out for the evening with my 8-year-old son in tow. He resists. "I don't like puppet shows," he declares. No wonder, given the proliferation of pap produced for young audiences. Should I really be surprised that the dance of cotton balls and Popsicle sticks from cleaned-up fairy tales has left him cold? Apparently, being four feet tall doesn't make you immune to the banal or the grotesque. And now for something completely different ...
Although The Crapstall Street Boys is a kind of fairy tale, we are grateful that it hasn't had the soul sanitized and whitewashed out of it. Is it brutal? No doubt. Yet, what is art if not an antidote to violence? The warm hues, intricate shadows, and haunting score of this production make cannibalism seem almost palatable and, more importantly, asks the question: What is the grotesque, anyway? I'll take the flesh-eating habits of a revolutionary over a CGI prince any day.
Here, Trouble Puppet proves that it need not hurl f-bombs to launch an explosive attack on corporate greed and the surveillance state. Working with a variety of different mediums, including video, Hopkins' fantastic team of puppeteers and technicians are at the top of their game. With a more fully realized script than The Head, The Crapstall Street Boys is as literary as it is technically brilliant. For parents and children alike, it is a story of monster slaying. This is where the duel meets dual meaning, as an adult's perception of monsters will be less literal.
When DreamWorks attempts a comic double-punch, its biggest laughs are often rooted in the scatological. Too easy. Although the title might hint otherwise, this is one crap stall that isn't full of shit. As for the pint-sized patron's POV? "I love puppet shows," he says when the lights come up – and with that, an entire genre's reputation is redeemed.
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