Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Puppet Wars: A Few Hope
For those few people out there who've never seen the film, here is a brief synopsis: In a classic example of good vs. evil, the story is set long ago in a far off galaxy where the evil Imperial Forces, led by the menacing Darth Vader, take Princess Leia hostage as they attempt to squash the efforts of the Rebel Alliance. The Empire has constructed a gigantic space station called the Death Star, which is capable of destroying entire planets, and Princess Leia has secretly acquired plans of the station on behalf of the Rebels in the hope of finding a weakness in its construction. Two rag-tag men, the farm boy Luke Skywalker and the cocky rogue pilot Han Solo, under the guidance of the mysterious old Jedi Knight Obi Wan Kenobi and working with two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and a large creature named Chewbacca, set out to rescue the princess, help the Rebels, destroy the Death Star, and restore peace and freedom to the Galaxy.
McNamara adapted and directed the show and he includes plenty of actual dialogue from the film, which Star Wars geeks will love, but adds in almost an equal amount of wisecracking commentary and jokes derived from other sources. He also uses puppets of various shapes and sizes to portray the well-known characters. While most of these have some relation to their film counterparts, the characters of Leia and Luke are represented by a cat and a dog puppet, respectively. While it is a strange choice, it actually works, especially since the costumes the characters wear are reminiscent of their human film characters. It also results in an almost endless slew of mostly amusing dog and cat jokes throughout the show. McNamara's script makes fun of Luke's continual high-pitched complaints, Vader's somewhat undecipherable voice, and the fact that Chewbacca doesn't speak in the film. He also sets everyone straight on the correct pronunciation of "falcon" in relation to the name of Han's ship, the Millennium Falcon, and includes some jokes about the voice of the computer "Hal" from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as "Siri," the Apple voice-activated assistant. While there are plenty of humorous moments in the show, only about half stick. Hopefully, McNamara is tweaking things as the show continues its three week run in order to remove some of the jokes that don't land and to try out others that hopefully will.
The cast is quite good. Jared Horton, Zach Funk, and Adam Bullock provide fairly accurate depictions of Luke, Han, and Obi-Wan, respectively, using the same style of speech and vocal inflections that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Alec Guinness did in the film. They also include additional humor in their line delivery. Anna Katen has the appropriate amount of feistiness as Princess Leia, and McNamara plays several parts, including Chewbacca, with zest. McNamara's decision to have Darth Vader and C-3PO played by actors and not puppets works, mainly due to the fact that, like in the film, both characters are completely enclosed in costumes so you never actually see a real person, just like the puppets on stage, as all of the puppeteers are completely covered in black. And while Tanner J. Stuff and David Chorley are fine in their portrayals of Vader and C-3PO, respectively, unfortunately, neither one is really given much to do in the show, including many of the lines and bits that aren't that funny. And I can't leave out the phenomenal performance of R2-D2, here played by a garbage can.
McNamara's direction is loose, which adds to the fun nature of the show and allows some room for the actors to ad-lib and mingle with the audience. However, it also means that the show can come across as a bit under rehearsed. Also, the cast could project a bit more to ensure they are heard over the audio clips and the laughs from the audience.
McNamara has poured the majority of his production budget into the creation of the puppets and the phenomenal space ships designed by Scott Horton. But the lack of any major set pieces, with the exception of a comical mock-up of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon that looks like a drunk plumber built it, is a bit of a bummer, especially since the film version of Star Wars is so visually stimulating. And while the set design may be lacking, the climactic battle scene does feature several fairly elaborate and large-scale spaceship models, and McNamara's staging of the fight is not only a visual showstopper but also a funny one as well. In addition to playing C-3PO, David Chorley also provides the spirited sound design which is a mixture of musical pieces from the film soundtrack and humorous other audio bits. The idea to include an audio clip from West Side Story at a key moment is genius.
If you've seen one of McNamara's "puppet shows" in the past, you know that they are more adult focused, with plenty of R-rated jokes. However, Puppet Wars is a detour from the norm in that it steers clear of any adult material. There are a couple of PG-13 jokes that only adults will get, which makes it more appealing to those theatregoers without children. While I think that McNamara works best when he is allowed to include R-rated jokes in his spoofs, he manages to keep the adult material out of this production, though at times it does seem like he is struggling to hold back from being filthy.
While Puppet Wars: A Few Hope isn't a completely successful theatrical event, it does feature some inspired ideas and comical commentary. With several laugh out loud moments as well as a spirited take on the final battle, if you're a fan of the Star Wars films, you'll find much to laugh at in this production.
All Puppet Players' production of Puppet Wars: A Few Hope runs through May 30th, 2015, at Playhouse on the Park, 1850 N. Central Avenue, in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.allpuppetplayers.com or by calling 602-254-2151
Loosely Adapted, Produced and Directed by Shaun Michael McNamara