Karen Haselmann is not a tall woman--I would guess that even on tiptoes she comes in under five-foot-six--and she seems to disappear when strapped into what she calls her "Jetpack." The device in question is an elegantly tangled mass of plumbing supplies and PVC tubing that arches upward from a backpack frame, wrapping itself over her head and supporting a rear-projection screen about the size of a small television monitor that hangs just above her face. The Jetpack, unexpectedly, is a portable theater, and Haselmann sits beneath it and behind it, holding up rod puppets so that they cast their surprising shadows upon its screen.
There, audience members might see the Queen of England, or they might see Donnie and Marie Osmond, as all three make frequent guest appearances. They take the form of shadows, cut from manila envelopes and attached with masking tape to long dowels--or, if they are to talk, taped over the head of a strange children's toy. This toy is a plastic dinosaur head attached to a long plastic stick with a trigger on the end. One squeeze of the trigger and the dinosaur's mouth snaps shut. With cardboard pasted atop it, the dinosaur is now a woman with cat's-eye spectacles who frequently narrates as Haselmann manipulates her puppets. She pours vodka gimlets down her characters' throats, or gives them sleeping pills to swallow ("My puppets swear and drink," Haselmann says, "and some are heavily medicated"), and leads them into perverse dreams in which gravity fails and they slide off the edge of the earth.
Haselmann has dozens of recurring characters, such as one called simply the "Bastard Puppet," a silhouette of a protester carrying a placard that reads only "Bastards!" The Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile is also apt to make an appearance, carefully decorated with lighting gels so that, seen through the screen, the hot-dog-shaped vehicle seems red. Haselmann tells her stories--some of them, inevitably, made up on the spot--with a practiced good humor that suggests she's been doing this for a long time. And she has, and she hasn't. To elaborate: Haselmann, who is 36 years old, has performed as a storyteller for about eight years. About a year ago she performed a piece at Patrick's Cabaret called My Sister Terry Is a Bitch, in which she narrated the story of her frequent childhood sibling squabbles. This she documented with an extensive slide show, with hand illustrations over the images, and the story proved to be very popular.
"People began to ask for it by name," Haselmann confides, "and when that happens, it's time to change things up on them. So I called Patrick's and told them I was going to do a puppet show, even though I had never done one before."
After several false starts, Haselmann furtively borrowed a few supplies from her then-employer, Walker Art Center ("They support the arts in more ways than they know about," she says sardonically) and put on a makeshift shadow-puppet show. A year later, her portable theater, jerry-built out of off-the-shelf hardware supplies and found items ("I know which dumpsters to stalk") has been through a number of incarnations and dozens of cabaret performances. Currently, Haselmann is plotting to do guerrilla performances in public venues; if she can work out the details, she'll do it on roller skates.
"I want to still be doing this when I am an old woman," she says. "I want to sit on the streets and perform it, until people call the police. I want to get so bad that people make 911 calls."