Animal House

Winter Dreams
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre

Soulcatcher
The Original Theatre Company

"I wanna go Florida," squeals a 3-foot-tall rat from atop a papier-mâché snowdrift. "I wanna go Florida where it's warm." The disconsolate rodent, who looks like a cross between a drowned muppet and a grocery bag, is one of the quirkier creatures in Heart of the Beast's latest puppet and mask production, Winter Dreams. Like his fellows, he's seemingly oblivious to the fact that La Niña has put the kibosh on our winter. Instead of just stepping outside, the varmint jumps on a pogo stick and bounces to sunny Jamaica.

It definitely takes a leap of imagination to follow, but if you can embrace an anthropomorphic rat, the rest of Winter Dreams isn't too hard to accept. After all, we're talking puppets here, and puppets have a logic all their own. In a season that has seen two major film studios target kids with computer-generated epics about nature's minutiae, there's certainly something comfortably organic about Heart of the Beast's shaggy creations. The lolling heads, bulging eyes, and lanky limbs have a charisma that defies explanation. First-time master of puppets Alison Heimstead seems to know intuitively that all a show like this needs to succeed is a dash of atmosphere and a generous suspension of disbelief.

Fortunately, In the Heart of the Beast's beasts don't disappoint. Following the disaffected rat, a parade of puppets and masked dancers shuffle, bounce, and spin across the stage. There's a very sleepy bear, a snake who does a shadow dance against a muslin sheet, and a pack of timberwolves so exotically costumed that it's easy to forget there are people behind the masks. There's even a flock of puppet birds that makes a graceful, looping exit over the audience's head. As always, Heart of the Beast's staging is spectacular. Set to soporific, vaguely Celtic melodies, the action leaps seamlessly from traditional Punch-and-Judy-style puppetry to mask dances, with eerie excursions into Javanese shadow puppetry.

Of course, the only accurate measure of a show like this is how it plays to the under-10 set. According to the squeals of delight, the highlight of Winter Dreams is a trio of adorably lumpy chipmunks that does a miniature Stooges routine before bedding down for the long winter's nap. There is, in fact, only one vignette that did not seem to resonate with the kiddies: a clunky and unimaginative bit in which a human polluter dumps toxic waste into a pristine pond and is transformed into a pink toad. (But then this company isn't named after a Che Guevara quote for nothing.) The ecology sermon ends quickly, and Winter Dreams segues into more wondrous things: towering white reindeer played by actors on stilts, and a puppets-and-pyrotechnics finale featuring the aurora borealis. The diapered segment of the crowd was unanimously enthusiastic.

Set in a "not-too-distant" future where all the furniture is a minty toothpaste blue, the Original Theatre Company's Soulcatcher is a puppet show for the conspiracy crowd. Here the hapless humans are the marionettes, and a vast Orwellian bureaucracy called the Bureau of Reproductive Affairs is pulling the strings.

In the Bureau's antiseptic hospital waiting-room, Clementine (Sara Valentine) is filing a maternity petition to have a mysterious device in her uterus removed so that she can bear a child. Elsewhere in the ward, a boy named Dodger Follows (Topher Brattain) has been resurrected after a nasty bout of autoerotic asphyxiation. In the future, you see, "witches" have developed a way to bring the dead back to life. Dodger's dad (Shawn Hoffman) is irate, however, because each family is allotted only three resurrections by the benevolent National Health Service, and his son has just wasted one trying for the ultimate orgasm. Oops. Meanwhile, a creepy Creole witch (Bob Malos) is sneaking around creating "goners," people who are resurrected without their souls.

Amazingly, playwright Lily Baber manages to pack all this explication into a first act that clocks in at a scant 20 minutes. The second act is longer and considerably less convoluted. Dodger turns out to be a goner and eventually defenestrates himself. After a lot of crying and screaming, darling Clementine revives a repressed childhood memory and discovers why her petition for maternity has been denied by the state. Of course, she's been a puppet all along in a nefarious conspiracy of bureaucrats and nasty witch doctors.

Though this dystopian allegory is familiar to fiction and cinema, it doesn't necessarily translate well to the stage. To her credit, Baber does an admirable job with an extremely complex story. If Soulcatcher stumbles occasionally over details, it's also an evocative parable about health care and the potential for totalitarianism when an indifferent bureaucracy (read: HMO) is given control over birth and death (read: abortion and euthanasia). And if nothing else, this new company is to be congratulated for staging such challenging work in a season when theatrical fare takes on the consistency of a figgy pudding.

Winter Dreams runs through January 3 at the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre; 721-2535.Soulcatcher runs through December 20 at Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theater; 824-6921.

 
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