'Room 5' is an insane puppet drama

April 01, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

"Room 5" is one puppet show that certainly is not for children -- or for all adults, either. It's a campy psycho-drama set in a mental hospital in which the puppet characters are really disturbed and the human puppeteer embodying their female nurse is really a man.

So this production by Amsterdam's Stuffed Puppet Theatre feels right at home at the insanity-friendly Theatre Project, where it's part of the U.S./Netherlands Touring & Exchange Project that brings Dutch companies to several U.S. theaters. Stuffed Puppet also appeared at the Theatre Project last summer.

Although the characters in "Room 5" have enough profoundly mysterious psychological problems to fill many a 60-minute session, this hour-long, one-man show is itself more or less coherent.

Stuffed Puppet's Neville Tranter, an Australian now based in Amsterdam, has obviously learned a thing or two about puppeteering along the way. Manipulating nearly life-size puppets whose beaked noses and grotesque facial expressions make them seem like Daumier caricatures, Mr. Tranter has merely to flick his wrist behind a puppet to bring it to creepy life.

The most unsettling transformation is what he does to himself. His white nurse's outfit, heavy facial makeup and red mop of a wig are a deliberately pathetic attempt at "passing," because his true gender is given away by his broad-shouldered body and husky voice.

This male/female, naughty/nice nurse alternately berates the puppet patients and makes self-referential, "It's just a puppet"-type asides to the audience. The patients, who are referred to by their room numbers, include an old lady in a wheelchair, another woman so heavily medicated she is like a zombie, a church official prone to sins of the flesh, and a judge who is eager to get to the bottom of a murder mystery at the clinic.

The patient known as "Room 5" is the only one we never see, but he is at the center of the mystery. He's a reclusive young man who evidently has a hyper-dysfunctional relationship with his mother, whose apparent murder we see at the beginning of the play. As the nurse conducts an inquiry, with the puppets and, by extension, the audience functioning as court witnesses, she insists it's all a form of shock (or should one say shocking?) therapy for the young man. But can we trust her?

All the funny business in this play about role-playing, multiple personalities, therapeutic procedures and the slippery nature of the truth could easily degenerate into a tiresome metaphor about the world as madhouse, but "Room 5" is too weird and too witty to be so readily explained.

"Room 5"

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday. There is an all-access performance Sunday at 8 p.m. in Dunnock Theatre at Goucher College

Tickets: $14, with discounts for students, seniors and artists

Call: (410) 752-8558

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