Metro Weekly

Puppet Masters: Famous Puppet Death Scenes at Woolly (Review)

A nonconformist troupe brings to Woolly's stage an extraordinary spectacle of puppetry

"How the Spirit Entered Me" by Famous Puppet Death Scenes Pre-Production  Photo by Jason Stang Photography
Famous Puppet Death Scenes – Photo: Jason Stang Photography

Likely the most charmingly melancholy, funny and original piece you’ll see this winter, Woolly Mammoth’s Famous Puppet Death Scenes is a kid’s play for grownups. Kid’s play because it is funny, silly and infused with fine geekery. For grownups, because, under and around the laughs, there flows a gentle but penetrating contemplation of death — the living with it, the waiting for it, and the way in which bearing witness to it becomes a rehearsal for our own.

A creation of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, the piece builds its premise and makes its explorations through a series of thematically connected vignettes, interspersed by visits from an elderly host who gradually offers more than just commentary. The vignettes are tiny masterpieces, each with a strange and whimsical atmosphere evoked by the Company’s beautifully gloomy sets and sound designer Mike Rinaldi’s extraordinary collage of sounds and vintage music. The puppets are works of high craft and art, their mostly grim faces serving as clever touchstones for pathos and irony alike.

Moving in, around, and behind these complex puppets and set pieces with the skill and dexterity of magicians are actors and puppeteers Nick Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes and Viktor Lukawski. When behind the puppets, they deliver an amazing array of superbly defined characters and voice. When appearing as humans, they are more performance art than narrative, complementing the goings-on and, in certain poignant moments, subtly bridging the gap between puppets and people. Of the three, Di Gaetano appears the most often, exuding a quirkiness and strange energy that works seamlessly in the context.

To describe the vignettes in any detail would be unfair, as much of the joy is in the element of surprise and delight as the ideas and the puppet mastery flow. Suffice to say that the creators, and directors Peter Balkwill and Tim Sutherland, have found innumerable ways to escape the confines of conventional puppet theater. In fact, they escape the confines and all sense of physical space with wonderfully-conceived suggestions of the vast and the tiny.

Visit The Metro Weekly Store

But they also escape the predictable, which is what makes the entertainment so magical. The moods and moments here are unlike anything mainstream. They hail from a different sensibility, one that is tethered to an intelligent and accessible humor but untethered in imagination. The vignettes draw from all manner of strange and interesting places, times, geographies, and the recesses of the creators’ unorthodox minds. It is rich with mood and atmosphere but never for its own sake. Instead, it’s always to create context for its contemplation of what it means to know that life will end.

And what does it mean? There is too much intelligence here to presume answers, but the gentle, humorous, and eventually intimate ways in which the subject is treated gives much food and space for thought. If you haven’t considered your death lately, you will. If you already think about it all the time, you’ll enjoy the company. If you’d prefer to stay in denial, you can probably do that too — they are just puppets, right?

Whatever your receptivity, there will be pleasure in this feat of hidden choreography with its giggles, spectacle of puppetry and the magic of the Old Trout’s extraordinary, nonconformist vision.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes () runs through Jan. 4, 2015. Tickets are $80-$98. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

[goldstar-plugin teritory=8]

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!