Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Fifty Shades of Felt
Also see Gil's review of The Mountaintop
Written and directed by All Puppet Players artistic director Shaun Michael McNamara, Fifty Shades of Felt follows college student Anastasia as she meets and becomes the sex slave of wealthy businessman Christian Grey. In the play, Anastasia talks about doing a Wikipedia search to learn more about the world of kinky sex, so I did a similar search for the novel and discovered that McNamara has provided a fairly faithful adaptation of the key plot points of the first novel in the series. He also makes it very easy to understand what is going on, even if you haven't read the book. However, McNamara has also added a considerable amount of humorous, hysterical moments to the dramatic proceedings of the novel, including many that mock the writing and plot points of the book itself. There is also a layer of ad-libbing and improvisation that make the show rise to an even higher comic level.
Amber Luallen and Devon Nickel operate the Anastasia and Christian puppets; along with the rest of the cast, they do an amazing job making the puppets come to life. Unlike other puppet shows, the actors are all in black, including black coverings over their faces. This makes the puppets more realistic without having an actor's face and moving mouth pull the focus away from the puppet. The majority of the cast have been in previous All Puppet Players productions, but a couple, including Nickel, are puppeteers for the first time. Considering the excellent results, that is very impressive.
But it is McNamara who really shines here, as he not only wrote and directed the production but also plays four roles as well, including Anastasia's "Inner Goddess." McNamara's comic delivery, timing and ability to ad-lib on the spur of the moment are superb. My favorite moment is when the first sex scene is about to start and McNamara throws out the line, "here it comes, you know this is why you came!" The sex scenes are even more humorous because none of the puppets has a body that goes further than the waist, so an additional amount of improvisation is necessary.
Also notable is David Chorley, who plays the "Subconscious" of Anastasia as a British-accented panda. I have no idea why that decision was made, but the scenes that he and McNamara have as Anastasia's two inner selves are priceless.
The puppets are of various shapes and sizes, and the quality and creativeness of the puppet designs is impressive. The very minimal set design (also by McNamara), while lacking, is still serviceable. Sound design by Chorley includes snippets of some well-known and not so well-known instrumental pieces and songs that add to the humor of the evening.
Now, an adult version of the puppet show is something that the musical Avenue Q made very popular. But, while Avenue Q is an adult show, with adult themes and language, it has nothing on the erotic situations and extreme adult obscenities uttered in Fifty Shades of Felt. Even the ads for the show call it "inappropriate," so if an overabundance of adult language, especially of an extreme sexual nature, aren't your thing, you should clearly avoid this show. There is also a bit of audience participation, where you'll most likely learn some new sexual acts.
The only misfire is the ending, which kind of just peters out with a tacked on abridged musical number from Hair that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. But, since the novel this is based on doesn't appear to make much sense, perhaps that was intentional.
Turning a hugely successful dramatic piece of art into a hysterical parody isn't new, but the added element of having puppets play all of the parts, including acting out a majority of the sexual scenes in the novel, is what makes Fifty Shades of Felt rise above other similar theatrical spoofs. Fifty Shades of Felt is extremely amusing, extremely vulgar and an extremely good time.
Fifty Shades of Felt has just been extended to December 7th with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org
Written and Directed by Shaun Michael McNamara