Starship Troupers

With its sci-fi epic 'Terminus,' the anarchic Bedlam Theater builds the mothership of all puppets

The Bedlam Theater has built the biggest puppet in the whole damn world. Oh, how I hate to modify that sentence, but perhaps I should, as the world is filled with all sorts of enormous puppets. Even as we speak, the Kiwanis Club in Sante Fe, New Mexico, is preparing to burn a 50-foot-tall puppet/effigy of Zozobra, otherwise known as "Old Man Gloom," at the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe. In fact, many in the rough collective of bedraggled theater professionals that make up Bedlam have tried their own hand at building enormous puppets.

For example, Mark Safford, a pleasant fellow with a crooked grin and wiry hair, built an infant head out of PVC tubes and coaxial cable this past year. The infant head appeared at the finale of the most recent Bare Bones Halloween Extravaganza, which told of a baby appearing in the kingdom of the dead, an unusually petty fiefdom made up of 15-foot-high skeletons in crowns. At the play's climax, Safford's infant head rolled over the orange leaf-covered hills of Theodore Wirth Park, having swelled to the rough dimensions of a Dutch barn. Perhaps this infant head was larger than the current puppet housed inside Bedlam's theater space, a ramshackle old storefront next to the West Bank

Karate Club and Palmer's Bar, once home to an African dance studio. (There is still an outline of Africa painted on the floor.)

But if the puppet inhabiting the Bedlam Theater space is not the world's largest, it must rank as the most unusual. At first, the puppet does not even resemble a puppet, looking instead like a stage set. And on this particular Thursday night, a little more than a week before Bedlam's new play Terminus is slated to open, it is a set that is still incomplete, despite the company's three continuous months of work. The creation is a great heap of plywood, foam, and cardboard that director Julian McFaul says costs, at this moment, just less than two thousand dollars. Completely encircling the performing area and rising to the roof of the storefront, it has been built to look like the interior of a vast spacecraft.

The audience--the set is so large that the space probably won't seat more than 50--will sit inside the belly of this beast as the action of the play takes place around them. There are several sections to this spacecraft, at this moment only roughed out by clumps of cardboard fastened by papier-mâché. Indeed, the whole of the set is still unfinished, with the lettering of paper bags from Cub Foods still visible, as well as such unexpected printed images as Elmo from Sesame Street and the words freezer/congelador/congelateur. Eventually the set will be painted and its rough cardboard sections will be made presentable: Just this afternoon members of the cast spent part of the day gluing children's toys, mostly gathered from local thrift shops, onto the section of the set referred to as the "cockpit."

Were this massive cardboard structure simply a set, it would be astonishing enough. But, as I have mentioned, it is also a puppet in the sense of being a representational object designed to be manipulated by puppeteers. This, however, is a puppet with a singular function: It spins. The whole of the spaceship is built on a platform of metal grating, which in turn is set atop rolling casters, such as those found on shopping carts. (I have a growing suspicion, by the way, that Cub Foods might unknowingly sponsor more theater arts, and particularly puppetry, than any number of McKnight grants.) With the efforts of a half-dozen crew members--often the actors who have temporarily left their posts aboard the spaceship--the set can turn in complete circles around the enclosed audience. And that's exactly what it does almost every time there is a scene change.

It is just this fact that has Julian McFaul seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This is the day that the Bedlam Theater is running through the technical details of the play's transitions, which, for the most part, consist of figuring out when the set is going to spin, and who is going to spin it. The rehearsals began in the early afternoon, and right now it is nearly 9:30 p.m., which is when the cast quits rehearsal. The technical details were meant to take half the rehearsal period, but here it is, quitting time, with the details only half worked out.

McFaul is visibly fretting, seated on a chair in the middle of the set, scrap of paper with technical cues clutched in one hand, head covered with a sweatshirt hood. "It's amazingly, fuckingly, maddeningly complex," he calls out in frustration.

 

This is the second time Bedlam has turned to Terminus, a rather ghostly science-fiction story by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Their first version was essentially a short shadow-puppet show, performed at the Red Eye space in 1999. The current production, giant puppet/set aside, is one of greatly expanded ambitions. For one thing, the script is far more complex: "Terminus" is just one story in a two-volume series dubbed Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Julian McFaul ransacked the entirety of the Pirx tales for the new script, with the aid of John F. Bueche, who penned the last Bedlam play, Freewheeling in the Attic of Whim, and who plays Pirx in this production.

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