‘Wars of Heaven: Smackdown’ is a intriguing, bold look at modern morality

When Trouble Puppet’s “Wars of Heaven: Part I” hit last year, audiences were not sure what to expect. So many of Trouble Puppet’s previous shows had their basis in literature or history, and even if they veered off in different directions, there’s always a stabilizing backbone behind it all. With “Wars of Heaven”, they let their imaginations run wild, and the result was a unique piece of artistic beauty. Their follow up “Wars of Heaven: Smackdown”, feels less like a sequel and more of a concurrent storyline, taking us to another corner of this twisted universe, as two high-ranking hosts of heaven and Hell match wits in theological debate, with the lives of innocents one the line.

“Wars of Heaven: Smackdown” brings audiences to a world that’s at once familiar, and yet wholly original. Taking its inspiration from Professional Wrestling (if the title “Smackdown” wasn’t clue enough), everything from commentators to huge personas speaks a language that will be familiar to anyone versed in the wrestling world. However, these battles are not fought on the canvas. Instead, the two challengers (one a high-rankng angel, the other a high-ranking demon) engage in a battle of wits, given horrifying personification in the form of innocent souls, forced to fight according to which side is winning the argument (and the arguments tend to be very one-sided, leading to a bit of a bloodbath). The sadly short piece builds to a shocking, soul-crushing twist ending that will stay with its viewer for some time.

The first thing you notice as you walk into “Wars of Heaven: Smackdown” is the scale. Most of Trouble Puppet’s previous plays happened on miniature sets, but here, we’re treated to one of the largest pieces of scenery in the company’s history, a large arena, complete with background puppets and a flat-screen TV. The main puppets follow suit, as they tower over the other puppets and characters, proving to be two of the most impressive pieces of work I’ve seen from the company. It all comes together to make the piece feel more epic, even as the shortened running time and the more straightforward plot make for a less intriguing experience than its predecessor.

After several years, Trouble Puppet Theatre, one of the boldest and most original companies in Austin, is losing its home, making their latest production, “Wars of Heaven: Smackdown” their final production for some time. It’s very telling that they chose this play to be their last in the space, as its no a somber, melancholy affair, but instead bursting with life, opening with opera, and taking its structure from Professional Wrestling. If it fails to meet some of the highs of some of the company’s previous efforts, it’s only because they left such a high benchmark. If Trouble Puppet has to leave the building, they’re going out with a bang, and taking he building down with them.

Courtesy of Trouble Puppet Theatre

‘The Wars of Heaven Part 1’: A well-crafted wonder of puppetry

Trouble Puppet is never one to rest on their laurels. They could easily just half-assedly throw something together and still pull in the crowds on reputation alone, but they come back year after year with original, intriguing tales based on everything from science fiction novels to historical events. With their latest, Trouble Puppet, led by award-winning director Connor Hopkins, begin what looks to be their most ambitious project yet, a three-year trilogy of productions called “The Wars of Heaven”. Part one follows a pair of paranormal figures as they make their way through the great battles of history, and along the way we’re taken on a wildly imaginative ride.

As we begin, the audience finds themselves thrust in Stalingrad in one of its most bloody skirmishes, where we’re soon introduced to the protagonists of our tale, one demon, and one angel. We’re shown through flashbacks that these two have been in battle with each other for decades, one siding with the revolutionaries, one with the oppressors. This dynamic makes up one of the most fascinating parts of the work, as we begin to see them grow and change with their constant meetings over the centuries, and when we meet them again in Stalingrad later in the play, we see them as very changed figures.

Per usual, there is not an element of the proceedings that is not immaculately crafted. The puppets themselves are expertly designed, playing with cliches and images of angels and demons, but showing their own flair to make them something wholly unique. How the characters visually change over the centuries is also fascinating to watch, as, with each time period, the puppets take on different appearances, while remaining wholly recognizable. Also standing out is the projection design and shadow puppetry. It is always well-timed and intriguing to watch, and helps to move the story forward in an incredibly riveting way that might not be possible through table puppetry alone. Underscoring all this is the ethereal yet industrial score by acclaimed composer Justin Sherburn, who is joined by the the gorgeous voices of Convergence to give the proceedings an otherworldly feel that leaves audiences slightly unnerved.

With “The Wars in Heaven”, we’re taken on a fascinating journey through a history that it at once easily recognizable, but also wildly different, in this original take on Milton’s classic tales. The production team, led by the ever-brilliant Connor Hopkins, has truly outdone themselves, using their skills to present us with a dirty, lived in, torn apart world, and a set of world-weary, torn-apart figures to live inside it. I cannot wait to see where this tale may take us in future years as this trilogy of tales unfolds, but it’s certainly off to a great start.

“The Wars of Heaven, Part 1” is playing through May 17 at Salvage Vanguard Theatre. For more information, visit Trouble Puppet’s website at troublepuppet.com.

Image Courtesy of Jennymarie Jemison and Trouble Puppet