A Play About Puppets Who Do Terrible Things To Each Other
On Saturday, March 8rd I went down to Silverlake's Manual Archives (a "Microtheater") and saw a strange and wonderful play called Concrete Folk Variations Part 1: Death Of A Sugar Daddy.
Written and designed by Susan Simpson, this absurdly titled play is a surprisingly gripping thriller about city corruption, sex and murder, set against the backdrop of LA's gay underground during the McCarthy era. It had literally everything - A scandal revealing the black underbelly of society's wealthy elites. Corruption, intimately connected to a period of massive expansion. A cast of characters right out of James Ellroy. A damaged, reticent protagonist dragged into the mess more by coercion than choice. Secrets, lies, sex, murders, ugly violence, institutional bigotry, and gross hypocrisy.
Told entirely with hand carved wooden puppets
Which is to say, it was incredible. And believe it or not, it's probably the best (performed) crime thriller and Southern California period piece since LA Confidential.
Obviously, Los Angeles doesn't exactly have a reputation for clean city government and honest cops. Civic leaders may decry supposedly unfair stereotypes about LA's police force and governing entities but it's no coincidence that the noir and crime fiction started (in part,) and reached it's most highly developed from right here in LA. This is the city that gave us Bloody Christmas and Rodney king, after all, and for nearly a century, play writers, filmmakers, novelists, and according to Republicans, journalists*, have been fictionally chronicling the uncertainty, criminals and sleaze that periodically flair up like a bad case of herpes and give LA it's abysmal reputation.
To this list, you can now add an unlikely new group: Puppeteers.
Concrete Folk Variations is constructed constructed as a serial, like a television show from the 50s, and it has a setting straight out of James Ellroy: It's the early 1950s in Los Angeles, and our heroine, Loretta Salt, is an early middle aged lesbian cop who bears twin crosses of gender and sexual orientation discrimination. This during the era when discrimination in all it's varieties wasn't just accepted, but encouraged and celebrated. Segregation and gender discrimination are the most obvious, but this is also the period when being openly gay was practically an invitation to be arrested.
As we see her for the first time, she's seems so beaten down by the facts of the world that she appears almost to know that she's an avatar for the outcasts of America's golden age. Through as-yet unrevealed circumstances, she's recently lost someone dear to her. A lover, or a child, it's never explicitly stated but the loss is deep and permanent. Romantically, she's a ghost - alone and forced to hide in the shadows of LA's gay scene, hoping that she won't be arrested for the crime of not being straight. Fully aware of the irony of her employment, given her preferences, she's finally coming to accept that the best she can look forward to is watching less qualified men advance past as she gets older, until she's retired and presumably, dies in the poorhouse.
NOTE: Told entirely with hand carved wooden puppets.
She begins the story apparently resigned to this fate. However, the murder of a prominent socialite with strong ties to the lesbian underground, and a near fatal car crash, forces her to rethink her life and her future. It's at that moment that someone intimately connected to the deceased hires her to investigate what just might be murder most foul. Suddenly, she's considering extremely difficult questions about the crime, about her former associates in the LAPD and even about herself, questions left unanswered, and with numerous brothers and sisters, by the cliffhanger that ends Part 1 after 45 minutes.
Which brings me back to the main point of this whole thing:
Hand carved, wooden puppets.
That's a difficult sell to most people (LAist readers excepted, naturally.) Given how they're normally used, (The Muppets aside, of course,) we don't exactly think of puppets as conveyors of serious truth, or puppetry a medium for serious storytelling. We think of them as amusements for children, which of course, means it just has to be as dumb as possible.**. Add to this, the most recent successful puppet show with an adult audience in mind was Avenue Q, basically a raunchy send up of the Muppets. As a result, you hear the words "puppet" and "for grownups" in the same sentence, you tend to expect a parody.
To be honest, I did too, or at least, I expected something more broadly satirical than the hard boiled, bare bones thriller I saw. The theater seats maybe 20 people, and the "stage" was an opening in a wall (roughly 5 by 4), through which you could see the identically dressed puppeteers, who manipulated the meticulously carved characters and the minimal sets.
As it began, I was admittedly afraid that I'd spend the play being too distracted or amused by puppeteers and the novelty of the thing. 5 minutes in I had completely forgotten the puppeteers were even there.
It's difficult for someone (Like me, for example) with limited experience describing puppets to really convey why it worked so well. The puppeteers seemed a part of scenery, and after you accepted the premise, they were only noticeable when they were supposed to be noticeable. The minimal, simply designed sets and backgrounds perfectly evoked the sunny optimism LA has ostentatiously projected since the 1920s, and the puppets themselves? Though highly stylized, they conveyed surprising depth and sadness. That has as much to do with the design as with the voice talent, two people (one of whom was play author and designer Susan Simpson.) The two actors convincingly voiced all characters male and female, managing to adequately convey tough guys, Women in Trouble, lovable schlubs and of course, the story's protagonist, with humor and surprising realism.
It was also filled with clever touches, like the diner breakfast scene when, with a whispered "here you go," one of the puppeteers, (wearing a vintage white cook's hat,) "served" the protagonist her puppet sized cup of coffee. Or the exciting card chase east on the 110 towards Pasadena - the puppeteers held the puppet sized car in the air, whipping it side to side in a sort of slow motion action while Simpson narrated the details. When she informed us that the car spun out just past Via Marisol, I fucking believed it.
Most importantly, Simpson has created an amazing character with Loretta Salt. Watching a puppet take stock of her life, fighting defeat and the weight of accumulated disappointments shouldn't be such a painful experience, but there you go. She reminded me of Danny Upshaw, one of the three main characters in James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere. Like Loretta, Danny is a gay cop in early 50s LA, forced to choose between who he is, and his career. His decisions have ultimately tragic consequences (which I won't spoil for you here,) and while it isn't clear how this story is going to end, by the conclusion of Part 1, I was genuinely worried that Loretta was going to end up like Danny.
Certainly, it has an abundance of elements familiar to anyone who loves noir and crime thrillers, but due the unusual protagonist and the compassionate portrayal of the era's gay scene, it's also original enough that it's never bogged down by cliches or by ominous (and obvious) foreshadowing.
Perhaps more importantly, it manages to depict an easily caricatured subculture with tenderness, brutal honesty and astonishing realism. That's hard enough using real actors (Anyone seen the parody that The L Word has descended into? ugggh.) That this feat was accomplished with, as I've said about 4 jillion times in this review, wooden puppets, is simply mind blowing.
Near the end of his life, Orson Welles provided the voice of Unicron, the planet sized robot devourer of worlds in the animated Transformers motion picture. In one of his last interviews, conducted during the making of this film, he described his work thusly: "I just spent my day playing a toy, in a movie about toys who do horrible things to each other." Orson clearly didn't mean that as a compliment, but having spent 45 minutes watching hand carved puppets lie, cheat and kill each other, only to find that by the end I was actually frustrated that it was over, perhaps he should have. Concrete Folk Variations is something rare and special, and it absolutely must be seen to be believed.
Concrete Folk Variations, Part 1: Death of a Sugar Daddy plays this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at The Manual Archives.
**no it doesn't.