Trouble Puppet’s ‘American Blood Song’ is an epic, painfully honest look at one of the darkest parts of American history

When most of us look back on America’s history, we like to remember the good times: the victories, the discoveries, the stories of heroes and brave men. There is, however, an importance in never forgetting the darker moments that make up our past, those shadowy corners that we dare not even whisper about in mixed company. Trouble Puppet Theatre have taken it upon themselves to shine a light into one of those dusky corners with their latest, the solemn, soul-rending puppet operetta, American Blood Song, an exploration of the trials and torments of the members of the Donner Party, an infamous group of settlers forced into extreme conditions thanks to some bad advice and stubborn leadership. What writer/director Connor Hopkins and his crew create, however, is not the familiar story we know, as he twists it, to tell his story from mostly the mouths of the women of this doomed company, showing us the story of bright-eyed daughters, abused wives, and overtaxed mothers, and how they are led astray by the actions of over-confident men.

Before walking into the performance, one can be forgiven for thinking puppetry and tragedy seem like an ill-fitting marriage. Particularly in American culture, puppetry is seen as an art form for children, full of joy and whimsy, and American Blood Song is about as far from whimsical as one can imagine, a descent into despair and decay, an exploration of the darkest sides of the human experience. With live actors, the whole exercise would become too extreme, but by making these characters puppets, there’s a certain remove that makes it more palatable. This is not to say that American Blood Song is an easy watch, far from it. We see mutilation, cannibalism, murder, and the death of children and animals, and even in the form of puppets, it can be an extreme journey. As you’re reading this, you can probably imagine that, if handled poorly, this could all become a tad bit silly, but luckily, one thing that saves this from going in the wrong direction is the emotionally honest performances.

One often forgets the importance of the human element in a puppet performance, but Trouble Puppet has always made sure to have the best talents behind the wheel, and this has never been so evident than in this production. Even with the beautiful, elaborate puppets and landscapes the company create, it’s the skilled stable of actors that provide the real heart of the characters. The detailed features and gorgeous costumes of Tamzene Donner go some way in telling her story, but without Caroline Reck’s soulful delivery, without her soft, silky, plaintive voice carrying us through, the play would hit with far less power; the horrible events that befall the 13-year-old Virginia Reed would not carry the same weight without Marina DeYoe-Pedraza injecting a playful, awkward innocence into the her voice; without Zac Crofford’s soaring baritone, Lansford Hastings would not come off as half as effective a villain; and William Eddy’s reluctant heroism would not hit such impressive heights without the strong, stalwart voice of Zac Carr behind the scenes. Each of these performers, and the handful of others talented actors, create crystalline moments of pure emotion that stick in your mind, lingering with you in the days to follow.

One mustn’t think that American Blood Song is without its moments of levity, however. There are few writers with a more keen ear for gallows humor than Connor Hopkins, and in this production, he and his company are able to bring in moments of humor while still being respectful to these historical figures. In particular one of the earliest scenes, involving a revolving door of shysters trying to steal the money of gullible travelers, is one of the funnier moments I’ve seen this year. Even in the melancholy moments that make up the latter half of the operetta, there’s time for a cheeky little ditty about cannibalism that helps to lighten the mood. It’s still a harsh road through American Blood Song, but Hopkins makes sure that there are still chances to crack a smile from time to time, even if the times are tough.

We mustn’t forget the other important ingredient in making American Blood Song work so well: Mother Falcon. Even in the most triumphant of songs (such as the recurring tune, “America”), there’s a sense of unease, of something being not quite right, a soft underlying rumble of cello, the quick, sudden quirk of an electric guitar that keeps us on our toes. The entire score brims with sorrowful passages, a delicate clarinet or a mournful sax drifting softly across the audience, wrapping us within the cold, the despair, and holding us fast. With just three performers, Mother Falcon creates an entire sonic landscape, helping to give texture and dimension to this immersive, sorrowful puppet landscape we find ourselves in throughout the later stages of the piece.

American Blood Song can be a difficult sit, and it’s probably not for everyone, but as I was leaving, I was reminded why I go to the theatre. While many plays are entertaining, and still others present an intriguing look at modern life, the best plays are the ones that leave you contemplating something within yourself. Something about “American Blood Song” changes you, seeps into your blood and grasps your bones, leaving you shaken in a way that upsets you as you’re sitting in bed at night. By breathing life into these puppets, Connor Hopkins and company have animated these long-dead memories, turning them into living, breathing figures, not so different from ourselves, and if this wilderness, which tests the limits of human extremity, could turn these people into such monsters, what would it take for that same change to happen to you, or to me?

American Blood Song is playing through August 17th at the Vortex Repertory Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit troublepuppet.com.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Stalick

‘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