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Pulling the Strings 

Captain Cartagus Candoo and His Trash Canned Treasures is subtitled "An evening of puppets, pirates and pandemonium." Got that right. I saw the show on the closing night of its recent run at The Howlin' Wolf, the very happening music club in the Warehouse District. Actually, if you needed that parenthesis, the smart money says you weren't in the audience. Cartagus was mostly aimed at and mostly seen by that ebullient young set of bohemians associated with the much-mourned-for Shim Sham Club.

The show was the brainchild of Bryan Spitzfaden, one of the cofounders of Measly Bumpkin puppeteers, a group that brought us several evenings of amiable chaos at Southern Rep over the last two years: the first, a free-form experimental work called Hardware; the second, Licking the Bowl, a play for humans (by Barret O'Brien) intertwined with an undersea fantasia for creatures of cloth, wood and string.

After these outings, the Measly Bumpkins -- always a bit scattered mentally -- got a bit scattered geographically as well. Arthur Mintz and Steve Zissis teamed up last year for the stunning puppet version of Amadeus. Now, they are deep in the creative throes of a new project -- a shadow-puppet spectacular (based on Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese fairy tales) set to open this fall. Barret O'Brien is in New York pursuing his career as actor, director and playwright.

As for Spitzfaden and master puppet builder Jacques Duffourc, they decided they wanted out of theater -- not out of "doing shows," just out of theater. "We wanted some place more rowdy," as Spitzfaden puts it. The result was Captain Cartagus.

The front of the bandstand at The Howlin' Wolf was piled with trash. Above the trash hung a patchwork curtain, roughly stitched together from ill-assorted oddments of cloth. One section of floor was covered with trash bags stuffed with shredded paper. These were the orchestras seats, perfect for recumbent viewing.

Music from the ReBirth Brass Band filled the half hour between the announced showtime and the actual showtime (a lapse that no one in the house seemed to notice, as they were all too busy drinking, chatting and flirting). Suddenly, the patchwork curtain fell, revealing a tall and imposing wall of garbage. As a haunting piece of music began to play ("Russian Dance" from Tom Waits' soundtrack for The Black Rider), two lumps of garbage began to disentangle themselves from the general pile. A great cry of wonder and appreciation went up as the audience realized there was a boy lump (Wes Harris) and a girl lump (Skye Jordan) and they were not only alive, they were dancing a lovely sort of trash-heap gavotte. The boy lump bore some resemblance to a unicorn, although a rhinoceros could not be ruled out. The girl lump wore a decidedly medieval cone-shaped hat and veil and had some plastic flowers strewn delicately amidst her more squalid accessories. She was one cute lump of garbage with a light fantastic toe.

Out comes Captain Cartagus, a scrawny 18th century aristocrat about 8 feet tall, who lapses languidly into grandiloquent alliteration like a circus ringmaster or an old Norse poet. "I am the royal ransacker of your rickety refuse," he explains, "the Jolly Roger of jetsam and junk," and etc. and etc. While we may not entirely share his apparently unbounded delight in the repetition of consonants, we can't help but love his sensitivity and poetically emaciated hands.

Well, one thing leads to another (I'm not sure that's the right verb, given the decidedly nonlinear nature of the event). We get a gospel sermon from a reverend who lives in a toilet bowl, we are blasted with Foozenbeast feathers, we follow the rise and fall of the latest rock sensation, Punktato. They are, in fact, three potatoes ("Witness their drunken debacle! See their troubling addiction!"). Finally, we in the audience each receive our very own "kazooksa" in order to assist the "kazorchestra" perform the climax of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, amid a vast cannonade and blizzard of newspaper clippings!

And then, as the encore, to celebrate this apotheosis, we forsake our garbage-bag recliners en masse and take to the dance floor for a rousing version of "Pennsylvania Polka."

Spitzfaden is right; it wouldn't be quite the same in a theater. And, to tell you the truth, it's probably not the same any two nights in a row. But, whatever it is, it's edging into cult status. And there are discussions afoot about bringing the show back for another run. So, keep your kazooksas handy, you may need them.

click to enlarge Audience members at The Howlin' Wolf came face- - to-face with Bryan Spitzfaden's latest puppet- - theater creation, Captain Cartagus Candoo and - His Trash Canned Treasures.
  • Audience members at The Howlin' Wolf came face- to-face with Bryan Spitzfaden's latest puppet- theater creation, Captain Cartagus Candoo and His Trash Canned Treasures.
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