It’s not everyday that I get to interview a puppet. But then again, it’s not everyday, one can walk into a theatre and watch puppets do death scenes.
The Calgary, Canada,-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop is currently on tour in Washington, DC. Nathanial Tweak, impresario and narrator for their show, “Famous Puppet Death Scenes,” even agreed to an interview.
Tweak, who is carved from wood and paper mache, is quite unlike any puppet I’ve ever seen — almost gothic looking, but with an Einstein-like hairdo. And he’s very old. Or, at least, he tells me this when he gets my name wrong.
With a dramatic flourish, he explains that for their current show, he “gathered the greatest death scenes in the history of puppet theatre, so that we may for one hour together, staring unblinkingly into the face of mortality through the eyes of eternal art!“
There are actually no famous death scenes in the annals of puppet theatre, but that hasn’t stopped the Old Trout Puppet Workshop from creating their own series of comically morbid and alternately disturbing, silly and even profound scenes of puppet death.
In one scene, the audience meets friends Bipsy and Mumu who sweetly dance together, laugh together, and then are each ripped apart by a monster. In another, a lifelike old woman simply, slowly expires. In another, a robot-like figure runs up an endless set of stairs, chasing something unknown, before finally plummeting to its death.
The puppets are a mish-mash of styles, sometimes intricate, seamless extensions of the puppeteer’s bodies. Sometimes they’re cartoonish, realistic, alien-like or even just children’s toys that the deft puppeteers bring to life.
The themes vary from domestic violence to childhood play gone awry and our overly driven modern lives. Death in all its varieties is explored.
Tweak, the puppet, says “these pieces confront us with our own impermanence, with our own mortality, with the fact that we are all going to slip from this mortal coil. In a way, I wanted to give you solace. I wanted you to come away feeling like death won’t be so bad. In fact, I want you to make friends with your mortality.”
Pityu Kenderes, co-founder and co-artistic director of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop admits the premise is somewhat ridiculous. "It’s puppets doing death scenes. They’re inherently dead,“ he says.
Nick Di Gaetano, the puppeteer behind Nathanial Tweak, points out that's not quite accurate. “Lifeless,” he says. “They’re inherently lifeless. And that’s — that’s what I think is so awesome. Is that they must be given life. And then you take it away."
In 1999, five friends — with backgrounds in theatre, sculpture, philosophy and even one who had done a stint in the US Navy — came together to start the Old Trout Puppet Workshop on a ranch in Alberta, Canada.
From day one, their shows have tackled large, almost philosophical ideas. In their first production, “The Unlikely Birth of Istvan,” two characters embodying the forces of creation and destruction clash to give birth to human beings. The show literally features an onstage, human-puppet, vaginal birth.
Courtesy of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop
More recently, they’ve been touring a show that ponders the meaning of happiness, why mankind is so obsessed with finding it, and whether that obsession leads to our own destruction.
But they do it with puppets. And the fact that they are a puppet troupe means sometimes people misunderstand.
“It's a difficult conversation, because you tell someone you’re a puppeteer, and they think, ‘Oh that's cute, do you tour schools?’ Then you go, ‘No. I do puppet shows for adults.’ And they think you’re doing some weird puppetry of the penis thing or that it’s X-rated somehow," Kenderes says. "Then you have to explain that it’s just adult topics.”
On occasion, they still get booked in the wrong places — with disturbingly amusing results.
Although Nathaniel Tweak is thousands of years old (in his recollection) and facing death every night, Tweak has definitely still got the stuff of a bona fide theatrical star.
“Tonight may be my greatest performance.”