Puppet plays hit Off Broadway

'Jollyship,' 'Arias' grow fan bases

NEW YORK — The puppets have arrived — and they’re starting to be profitable.

Five years after “Avenue Q” introduced foul-mouthed muppets to Broadway, growing fan bases and positive reviews have helped puppet perfs like pirate tuner “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang” and drag spectacular “Arias With a Twist” make a splash Off Broadway.

Artists and owners of the tiny, packed theaters where they play are surprised — and given the economic climate, relieved.

Between these shows and others, like Chicago-based Redmoon Theater’s Victor Hugo-tome takeoff “Hunchback” at the New Victory, it’s been a puppet-heavy season, and it promises to get even moreso with Dan Hurlin’s “Disfarmer” coming to St. Ann’s Warehouse in the winter.

That’s a lot of Gotham exposure for a marginalized medium that requires so many complicated — and, for these venues, pricey — effects. At the climax of “Arias,” for example, the show’s star stomps Godzilla-style through Manhattan in high heels the size of Buicks.

Nobody expected “Arias” to break even — the show would have lost money without its lengthy extension. “It’s the long run that will allow it to pay for itself,” explains designer and director Basil Twist.

The kitchy performance, which features drag artisteand Billie Holiday soundalike Joey Arias interacting with puppetmaker Twist’s stylized demons, aliens and chorus girls (among others), has played at least five perfs a week to a 70-seat house at Here Arts Center’s Dorothy B. Williams Theater since opening in June, and will continue through Dec. 31 — an unusually long run for such a small, design-heavy show.

“Jollyship” is another unexpected success. A slapdash pirate-puppet rock musical, the show got so much attention it turned into one of Ars Nova’s biggest sellers, repping a good start for a fledgling nonprofit theater that only began producing a full season this year. The “Adult Swim”-style humor and furious tunes were just what the venue’s hipster auds ordered.

“We didn’t go in expecting to make out like bandits, but by the end, we had lines waiting to get in,” says Ars Nova a.d. Jason Eagan.

It still proved impossible for the show to recoup its $130,000 budget — because of other shows waiting in the wings, the theater had to end the run while it was still making money. But now Ars Nova is helping the “Jollyship” team seek other berths. Eagan says a commercial production is probably not far off.

Principal creative Nick Jones says the popularity is helping to give similar endeavors an air of legitimacy in the public eye.

“There’s sort of a stigma toward puppetry,” Jones says. “When you start talking about your pirate puppet musical, you’re met with a certain amount of disdain. Now I can say I have a successful pirate puppet musical.”

Practitioners like Twist and Jones speak lovingly of the craft, but actual performances are frequently so expensive, relatively speaking, that they have to rely on outside money to get going.

Most puppet enthusiasts give props to the Jim Henson Foundation, which awards comparatively large grants to aspiring performers.

“The Hensons are big supporters of the lab,” says Tom Lee, who co-directs St. Ann’s puppetry lab with fellow puppeteer Matt Acheson, a teacher at Sarah Lawrence. Lee received $5,000 for his show “Ko’olau,” and the Henson Foundation also supplies money to the lab itself.

The producing arm of the Henson org is still hard at work, too: The Jim Henson Co. will co-produce a stage version at Goodspeed in East Haddam, Conn., of its 1977 HBO Christmas special “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” with veteran puppeteers from “Sesame Street” and “Avenue Q” joining the show. Original “Otter” composer Paul Williams will contribute an expanded score to the production, which Goodspeed hopes will become an annual event.

Besides the St. Ann’s lab, there are few places where puppeteers can get financial or artistic support for their work: the O’Neill Center in Waterford, Conn., where “Avenue Q” got its start; Twist’s Dream Music Puppetry program at Here; and various college programs.

Most of the time, Twist says, “it’s an apprenticeship in the old-world sense. You go and ask if you can help out, and then pretty soon you’re building puppets, and then you’re running the company, and then you’re quitting to run your own company.” (Twist comes from a family of puppeteers; some of the puppets in “Arias” are antiques inherited from his grandfather.)

No matter where they’re trained, puppeteers agree that the form meets a need that’s at least as old as Punch and Judy, whether they’re dancing in a kick line or whacking each other over the head.

“I think it’s a little bit sick,” Jones says. “Because people can project themselves onto characters who are doing extreme things, and then laugh at it.”

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