Deep in the catacombs beneath a new, fancy gated community is the sound of howling and keening. Is it ghosts? Monsters? Or something decidedly more human?
This bizarro world of gun violence, bloodshed, and consumerism is the setting of David Commander and Rob Ramirez’s digital puppet-palooza, Fear in the Western World, which is part of the Exponential Festival this month.
The 45-minute piece sets an ambitious stage, physically and thematically. This company is known for using puppets with screen tablet-like heads, which contain pre-recorded images of actors’ faces emoting and speaking in a choppy style. Live video projection guides us through the small-scaled puppet world. Commander and Ramirez do not employ a slick aesthetic, however. Rather, it’s more a mash-up of new tech and old–like mixing iPhones with degraded ’80s camcorder footage. As with a lot of puppet companies, we can see the labor and construction of the show being created while also experiencing the puppet narrative.
George (Commander) and Kathy’s (Nikki Calonge) daughter Missy (Maria Camia) has been kidnapped by some amorphous creature and dragged into the catacombs that they did not know were under their new house. George armed with a gun from the oh-so-convenient vending machine in his living room takes matters into his own hands, popping off shots readily against the “ghost” without regard for his daughter who takes more hits than the ethereal creature. Missy is mostly un-phased by being shot but the ghost drags her off and the parents chase after.
With three puppeteers, the team manages to set up a street scene, a home interior, and then a quick change to a constantly shifting maze of subterranean scares with dead ends, mysteriously changing hallways, and unknown horror behind the walls. The expansive physical staging offers a larger platform for this scrappy company. But the surreal narrative gets murky.
Commander and Ramirez are satirizing American gun culture while also exploring the mindset of American gun owners. George’s fears melt away the minute cold metal is in his hand. He quickly adopts a kill-or-be-killed mindset even when the threat is questionable. With clips of a distorted Alex Jones’ Info Wars episode and flashing images of guns throughout, George spouts pro-gun platitudes and puffs up with machismo (“I’m protecting the shit out of this family right now”) while Kathy is shocked at her husband’s sudden transformation with gun in tow (“If we’re going to find our daughter you are going to have to snap out of this comic book hero complex that’s gotten a hold of you”). She wonders if he’s always been like this. It doesn’t take much in this world to turn someone into a killer.
The piece then layers on top of this Greek mythological elements (Janus, Dolos, harpies, Minotaur’s labyrinth ) as well as low budget slasher movie references. It all suggests tragedy is imminent here, if Chekhov’s machine guns alone did not already point to it. But rather than sharp jabs of commentary the satire blurs. The wild, underground mystery ride the creators take us on isn’t quite as clear in intent as it needs to be. There is less heart-pounding and more questions.
The snarky tone of the text worked well in their last piece, Steve of Tomorrow, which poked fun at overblown media circuses and subtly folded in climate crises. Here, the hurried performances had a tendency to trip over the dialogue. Some of the overblown comedy sat uncomfortably with the serious subject matter.
The piece was inspired by the Sandy Hook shooting but when Missy invokes the names of gun violence victims it disturbed me (as I suspect it intends to). This underground world is so exaggerated that while the attitudes are quite real (albeit pushed to extremes) the circumstances are far from. Speaking the names of the dead was the rare moment of our reality creeping in but neither the show nor I knew how to process it.
The most genuinely moving moment was simply the body of one of the puppets after it had been killed, with its digital face still glowing, lying prostrate on the ground. As the performers were off setting up another scene, this left-behind puppet caught my attention with its stillness. Its lifelessness was apparent and we readily saw the consequences of gun violence. Sometimes the most quiet moments speak the loudest.