Puppeteer has his hands full

April 08, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The protagonist of Stuffed Puppet Theatre's "The Nightclub" is a puppeteer named Anthony, whose increasingly avant-garde puppet shows tend to ramble. And one of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of this Dutch production is the way its meandering format resembles the hapless puppeteer's acts.

The result is a 90-minute show, currently at the Theatre Project, created with all the exuberance and loose, wandering qualities of a children's game of make-believe.

Make no mistake, however. While Stuffed Puppet founder Neville Tranter, the show's creator and sole performer, displays an unmistakable sense of child-like enthusiasm and creativity, he has devised a show that is thematically anything but kid's stuff.

"The Nightclub's" chief theme is the dangerous, even fatal, allure of fame and celebrity. Temptation takes the form of a shady impresario named Bizarro, who lures Anthony with the promise of stardom. In Bizarro's dark, menacing world, the audience becomes a ravenous monster eager to suck the humanity, loyalty and decency out of a performer for a few quick thrills. And Bizarro is more than willing to give the audience what it wants.

Anthony's aging partner, Zeno, tries to warn him about Bizarro, but Anthony is blinded by dreams of glory. Thus, "The Nightclub" becomes a cautionary puppet show for grown-ups. And though it originated in Amsterdam, it's a show that probably strikes a truer chord in the starstruck, celebrity-crazed United States, where it is on a three-city tour.

Although Tranter's conceptual sense can be a bit slack, his facility as a puppeteer is stunning. Tranter makes Anthony, the puppeteer, the show's only human character. All the rest are puppets, and in the case of Bizarro -- who transforms himself into a transvestite nightclub proprietor named Jacky -- more than one puppet is used for a single character. (A critic puppet, who literally tells Anthony what to think, is a comic gem.)

When his puppets speak, Tranter does not conceal the fact that his own lips move. And yet, he's so adept at manipulating these homely creatures -- with their beak-like noses, gaping red mouths and enormous hands -- that you willingly give in to the conceit that the puppets are doing the talking. Not only that: When he sets the small, endearing Zeno puppet down on a chair and leaves the stage, you half expect the little guy to get up and walk around on his own.

"The Nightclub" is Stuffed Puppet's fourth Baltimore appearance, each under the auspices of the U.S./Netherlands Touring & Exchange Project. Of these, only Tranter's breathtaking "Macbeth" was based on an existing text. Stuffed Puppet might consider relying on established material more often. Despite the strong thematic content of his original work, Tranter's most impressive skills are as a puppeteer and an interpretive artist.

'The Nightclub'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $14

Call: 410-752-8558

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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