In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) is known for creating puppets as tall as its name is long: those distinctive, towering figures that populate stage productions and act as unofficial grand marshals of Powderhorn's annual MayDay Parade. With Basement Creatures, HOBT makes a foray into the small-scale, intimate puppetry more typically associated with the nearby Open Eye Figure Theatre.
The show doesn't actually take place in a basement; it unfolds behind the curtain on HOBT's stage, where the audience takes in the show from a set of bleachers after gathering in what's usually the seating area. Into this darkened realm, the Subterranean Explorer (Angie Courchaine) descends on chains. She's reached the eponymous basement, and is there for an odyssey at the intersection of Alice in Wonderland, Monty Python, and Cabaret.
Davey T. Steinman, who wrote and directed the show with music by a shadowy Band of Creatures, calls the production "an underground rock opera." It's a motley affair in which a succession of creepy-crawlies, played by puppetry-aided performers, sing to the Explorer about topics ranging from the highly pertinent (Charlotte Calvert, as a bedbug, sings of her bloodlust) to the extremely remote (Peter Lincoln Rusk, as an anthropomorphic blackboard, reveals his ignorance of what exactly the sun is and how it works).
The songs range from vaudeville pastiche to EDM, but the overriding musical aesthetic is something along the lines of Nick Cave if his name were Nick Cellar instead. The Explorer's guide through the subterranean world is Steinman himself as the Basement Dweller, an insecure emcee who forgives the Explorer for quickly killing some of his kin (with a weapon formed from a smoke-filled barrel, one of the show's niftiest visual tricks) and proceeds to befriend her — even making an unspeakable suggestion about experimenting with inter-species crossbreeding.
Near the show's conclusion, the Basement Dweller mocks the above-ground insistence on linear narrative, which anticipates the most obvious criticism of this show: There's virtually no plot, and even the thematic threads (sustainability, the hubris of humankind, etc.) are loose at best. Essentially, Basement Creatures is just an excuse for a bizarre bevy of bugs to take their turns in the spotlight.
Some of the musical numbers build into nearly incoherent spectacle. Rusk, for example, reappears as an "Organ Surgeon" who's made out of discarded papers; before you can figure out what exactly he's singing about, he seemingly disembowels himself. At another point several performers in black suits and giant insect heads gather for a weird, choreographed dance while the Basement Dweller rants about politics (is this what a brokered convention would look like?).
Courchaine — whose silvery duct-hose costume looks to have required trips to REI, American Apparel, and Menards — proves an expressive and subtle physical actor, silently holding our empathy and our interest as droll chaos erupts around her. But when the Explorer moves to make her vertical escape from this shambling show, you're definitely rooting for her.
IF YOU GO:
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
Through March 26; 612-721-2535