Wars of Heaven: Smackdown!
This Trouble Puppet Theater production takes the philosophic battle between good and evil into the pro-wrestling ring
Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, Fri., May 6, 2016
A few years ago, I found myself in an Intro to Philosophy class at Austin Community College. As a "student over traditional age," I was more interested in the history of philosophy, but found it fascinating to see the minds of my younger classmates expand as they were challenged with thoughts they'd never dared to have before – though on my end, most of the conventions discussed had already been fully explored years ago among buddies with a black light and a bong. With Trouble Puppet Theater Company's Wars of Heaven: Smackdown!, the challenge of repackaging these ideas for a fresh take is well met, though the production elevates itself a bit past its core message.
Artistic Director Connor Hopkins' script combines many lofty philosophical and theological themes found across ages of literature and poetry – most notably John Milton's Paradise Lost – and presents them as a purgatorial death match. Several souls are pitted against one another in combat, representing the sides of good and evil for an event in its 11th millennium. The human actors quickly don their puppet counterparts, and with the blustery bravado of a WWE announcer's statement that all audience members' souls will be harvested at the end of the show, we're ready to rumble. Representing the heavens and all that is good and pure is Uriel, perfectly voiced by the booming Jay Young. On the dark side, we have the wickedly sharp Michelle Dahlenburg voicing Behemoth, the rep for the underworld. The combatants are animals upon beastly mounts embodied by the human souls, forced to fight a battle we soon find is and always has been one-sided. Gricelda Silva is marvelous as a rabbit in Uriel's charge, quickly endearing herself to the audience and easily garnering our emotional investment. Zac Crofford, Caroline Reck, Emily Ash, Michael Ferstenfeld, and Julie Moore fill out the remainder of the roster, each turning in solid acting and puppeteering turns.
We are quickly aware of the simple idea at the heart of this happening: The ideas of "good" and "evil" don't really matter, as we are all puppets and/or slaves to the constructs of power, and no one ever wins. Silva's rabbit gets the gist of this early on and begins to encourage her opponents to defeat her in an act of rebellion against both Uriel and Behemoth; this seems to her the only way to free themselves. This theme is coupled with video clips by Chris Owen, showing us the sometimes utter idiocy of television/consumer culture throughout the years, to which we as a society are also slaves. The clips are funny and well-edited but after a while become a bit repetitive and seem to serve more as a cover for actors changing puppets than a device to further the story.
As this was my first Trouble Puppet show, I'm not sure it's fair to compare my experience to the buzz surrounding many of the company's previous shows (The Jungle, Frankenstein, Crapstall Street Boys, et al.) but I can't help wondering where this show would fall within the rankings of their lexicon. It's challenging to create a narrative wherein an idealistic message is the protagonist, and the result here often feels like an unbalanced signal-to-noise ratio. The puppets are fantastic, as are their operators, and it's easy to see why the company is sponsored in part by the Jim Henson Foundation, but the pacing, tone, and execution of the story itself feels a little erratic – more sizzle than steak. Still, the ideas presented are worth exploring, and this is a theological debate repurposed as a pro-wrestling event after all, so perhaps that basic concept wrapped in grand spectacle is the point.
Wars of Heaven: Smackdown!Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through May 15
Running time: 55 min.