The Puppet Master

After two decades as a theatrical jack-of-all-trades, Michael Sommers pulls the strings for his first full-length performance

Sommers's show looks at icons of choice, from the comic Kasper (who considers and refuses the deal with the devil) to Faust himself. Apples magically appear, hovering in the air, while wine glasses refill themselves, doors open and shut, and candles light without apparent human intervention. The result is a melding of narrative and image, an exploration of free will and its ramifications. Heady stuff, sure, but in Sommers's adept hands, these concepts promise to surface in the form of a wildly imagistic black comedy. How intellectual can a show be with the line, "Breasticus Magnificus?"

There in the conjunction of mammaries and Mephistopheles lies Sommers's distinctive style. "You know immediately you are in the universe of Michael Sommers," Bithers explains. "His work is so visually stunning. He has such a balance between playfulness and...a dark and individualistic sensibility. He's able to tap into the childlike part of him, but from a very adult, late-20th-century perspective. His work is dark and wonderful."

Bither uses phrases like "disturbed circus carnival" and "decrepit Americana" to describe the look of Sommers's show. Loren Niemi describes the same aesthetic in a set piece from the Bad Jazz show Forgiveness and Loss. "There were two banners that hung on each side of the stage," he recalls. "On one is an... unhappy man in an overcoat, hat pulled down, carrying suitcases while a cloud rains upon him. This image is the essential manifestation of Michael's aesthetic: visual simplicity coupled with metaphoric reference. It is a mix of classically naive folk and vaudeville styles. It speaks to me directly; it satisfies. It leaves me with little moments of emotional content so precise and powerful I reference them in memory months after the fact."

Michael Sommers pulls the strings with this group of artistic associates
Daniel Corrigan
Michael Sommers pulls the strings with this group of artistic associates

Indeed, in rehearsal Sommers's attention to visual detail is intense--almost comically obsessive. Take the scene called "Dante and Marmoset with the Poodle." It begins with Kate Brehn marching a wooden furry dog with big dumb poodle eyes. The poodle pauses, her hind legs go up, and we hear: PSSSSSSSSSS.

"Great, great. Let the peeing be the business, Kate. That's all we need," Sommers interjects while untangling his marionette, Dante--a many-jointed, four-legged, horned (and horny) creature. The poodle pees and Sommers's Dante peers out from stage right. He sniffs. The poodle wags its poodle butt. Dante crawls onstage and growls with glee. His head spins around, Exorcist style. He sprints to the poodle and rises on his hind legs. His hips thrust back and forth and his head lolls back. His long corded tail waves in the air. The poodle pants.

Sommers's head peeks over the stage: "How does that look, Julian? Is the story clear?" McFaul laughs and Sommers asks, "The humping bit is worth it, right? I mean the audience paid 15 bucks."

Though he may have been joking, here, underneath the comment, lies another one of Sommers's current obsessions: People are actually going to see this show, and what if it's a disaster? "I was talking to Philip Bither early on about the show," Sommers recalls, "and I said, 'You know, it might totally crash and burn. It might be the stinkiest thing ever.' And Philip said, 'Well that's great. If it's a failure, it's a failure. Just make sure if it sucks, it really sucks.'"

A Prelude to Faust plays at Patrick's Cabaret from November 18 through December 6; 375-7622.

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