This year The Night of the Living Dead Puppet-Show celebrates its 10th anniversary October performance with a one-weekend run in a classy studio theatre space just outside of downtown. Bill Olsen and company fill an evening’s performance with a show that features the standard scene-for-scene spoof of George Romero’s classic horror film. The show opens with a series of variety acts by Angry Young Men Ltd. It’s largely hosted by Josh Perkins in the role of the group’s most venerable puppet who welcomes everyone to the show and establishes a crazy energy that comes to inhabit the intimacy of the Next Act Theatre space.
Regular puppets include the delightfully uneven poetry of Lumpy the Golem Boy and fuzzy, little scientist/inventor Blondie. There are comedy sketches, jokes and a few musical moments. It’s a pretty diverse mix of moods for head-and-torso felt. It’s pretty amazing just how diverse the mood can get with just plastic, felt and puppeteers wearing black. There’s a lot of comedy, but there’s some genuine emotional warmth and pathos as well.
Bill Olsen leads much of the show with Lumpy. Olsen’s got really great comic instincts which deliver a good portion of Lumpy’s personality to the stage. The soft, little blue one does the rest of the work all on his own with poise and poetry.
The comedy involved sometimes treads its way over to the political end. There’s a cute moment where Blondie delivers a public service announcement about the impending zombie apocalypse which features one of the most bad-assed fuzzy puppets I’ve ever seen: a stern-looking brown rabbity-thing carrying a shotgun. (It’s introduced to the audience as Smartass.) Funny stuff.
Overall there’s a fundamentally surreal feeling about the atmosphere. A group of adults have come together in an audience to un-ironically enjoy a puppet show. This isn’t camp. It isn’t kitsch. The puppets are brought to the stage for earnest, heartfelt entertainment and moments that even occasionally tug at the heartstrings. It’s strange to sit back for a moment and realize that these are puppets...those stage creatures so often associated with children’s fare. And no--the budget isn’t great and and yes--maybe the puppets feel a little crude and haphazard in places, but aren’t we ALL, in a sense, crude and haphazard? Identifying with the characters onstage may be the most important part of a theatrical experience and Angry Young Men Ltd. doe a really good job with that.
Of course, the group goes pretty far with the genre alone. Not many people are crazy enough to do a full, feature-length puppet show largely for adults that doesn’t have some other gimmick to it. (Like say...maybe it’s a touring Broadway puppet musical with pop cultural references to Sesame Street for instance. Or maybe the puppets are mostly seen in silhouette heckling bad movies.) Angry Young Men’s variety act is essentially a live, contemporary version of The Muppet Show without a huge budget and no safety net. There’s a real fearlessness in that which is best summed-up in the image of fuzzy brown fur and a stern gaze bravely holding a shotgun in a PSA spoof. This is the face of contemporary adult puppetry in Milwaukee. It’s not perfect. Neither are you. It can be fun. As an audience it’s a good time to be fun right along with it.
Angry Young Men’s Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show continues through Oct. 28 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S Water St. For ticket reservations, visit Next Act online. For more information about the group, visit Angry Young Men’s Facebook page.