Pun intended. Trouble Puppet Theatre Company’s production of The Head at Salvage Vanguard Theatre in east Austin is an evening length puppet play of surpassing creativity and yet another high mark for puppetry performance in Austin. It is not troubling, it is delightful—but only for those adults who love dark, dark humor. The title may seem only vaguely familiar to many, and that is because it is an original play, created by Trouble Puppet leader Connor Hopkins and his band of puppeteers, artists, musicians and theatrical performers. Think Santa’s workshop with the elves dressed all in black and you will have nailed the idea. For Hopkins himself, think a combination of Santa and Gepetto, both of whom went off their medication years ago. This is no belittlement, the results just might be creative genius.
The Head takes place in the head of an unnamed human being, The Man, struggling to put a life together, as are we all. This personal identification establishes a visceral connection right away. The industrial/disneyesque set, more specifically, is a model of the mind within the head, with a few bits of brain structure thrown in, namely the limbic system. The controller of all the puffing, wheezing steampunk mind departments, most of the time, is The Mechanic. He is a grizzled, old, coverall-wearing puppet who has Seen It All and is getting a little tired of all the madness. He has to get The Man up in the morning, keep him away from cigarettes, and drive him safely to work. Worst of all, he cannot remember where The Man mislaid his neurotransmitter support medication. This, The Mechanic believes, is crucial. Then, as things get worse, The Man’s inner demons start showing up, emerging one by one from the steaming vat depicting the limbic system down stage left. The Mechanic has seen them all too often and pushes them back, either with his very large hammer or by trickery.
These creatures are true lulus. Think Fantasia with 3-D glasses on adrenalin and skittles. And foul language. The limbic system is a brain center that, I believe, is not really well understood; but it seems to give rise to, harbor, and process emotions, pleasure, and impulse. What we think of as our inner demons are not our Nemesis, but complex aspects of our composite selves. The Head acknowledges this, because The Mechanic desperately summons the inner demons to get through another day.
In this, The Head shows a generational updating of neuropsychology. In 1956’s Forbidden Planet, starring Robbie the Robot(technically a puppet?) on a distant, mysterious planet, the shock climax warned us of “monsters from the id.” This was probably the apex of popular acceptance of Freud’s model of the mind, giving us something to enjoy and fear at the same time. Now, we have a more physiological model of the mind and its functioning, and The Head takes fresh recognition of that.
Clearly, this show is a step beyond conventional theatre and its show-busy conceits. It is original, no-holds-barred adult fare appealing to the inner child and the brooding intellectual simultaneously. The Head runs until October 19th, 2013 at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre in east Austin.