by Samuel L. Leiter
Looking for something unpretentious and completely charming with which to beguile a child this holiday season? Would you rather eat a lump of coal than see another Christmas Carol or Nutcracker Suite, or anything else having to do with Christmas per se? If so, you can do yourself and whatever little ones you wish to entertain a favor by dropping in for an hour’s worth of funny, off-the-beaten-path shadow puppetry at Greenwich Village’s Barrow Street Theatre. That’s where Canadian-born Jeff Achtem, whose Bunk Puppets company is resident in Melbourne, Australia, is performing Swamp Juice, his one-man demonstration of puppeteering virtuosity in which—like the dalang in Indonesian shadow puppet theater—Achtem is himself as much a part of the show as his imaginary friends. This is the show’s Off Broadway debut, after having been seen in various international venues, including an award-winning stint at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe.
Achtem, a middle-aged but appealingly energetic and boyish fellow with a vanishing tuft of graying hair and the impish aura of a kid who never grew up, arrives barefoot, in too-short trousers, buttoned vest, and shirt, and tie; he’s also wearing a pair of large goggles, as if he’s been swimming underwater. The show is called Swamp Juice, after all. He soon removes the goggles and empties a box of what seem like shiny party favors on the floor, where they remain until later in the program when they’re distributed among the audience members, who briefly get to take part in the action. Upstage is a clothesline from which hang various props and puppet elements, while downstage right is a large bed sheet used as the screen onto which Achtem projects a simple story that, while it includes other things as well, is chiefly about an ogre-like man in pursuit of a big-beaked bird. His lighting instruments are at stage left, unlike Indonesian shadow puppets, which are lit from behind, so we can watch him do his magic in full view.
Indonesian shadow puppets are works of art, but most of Achtem’s puppets are made of what looks like junk. Though self-consciously crude, when seen in shadow silhouettes they gradually acquire their own rough aesthetic. Manipulated by Achtem’s agile fingers and limbs, they assume remarkably lifelike qualities. Mouths gape, tongues wag, eyeballs roll, facial expressions change; by merely shifting your gaze, you can easily observe just how the master makes these things happen. At one point, Achtem adds even more movement by blowing into a tube to manipulate some puppet part. There’s a hilarious moment when Achtem leans his head into the frame so that the hair on his head looks like it’s sprouting from the ogre’s chest.
All the while, as he rushes about changing puppets and twists himself into pretzels to handle multiple figures, Achtem dexterously manipulates the lights by pressing buttons with his toes on a small box taped to the floor. Everything is timed to a prerecorded score of impressive sound effects and comical music (by David Henry, Nick Carver, and Tristan Kelly), to which Achtem adds, via a head mic, highly amplified, made-up words or actual phrases, like “I’m gonna get you, birdie,” delivered in a drolly exaggerated growl.
A highlight comes when old-fashioned 3D glasses are distributed so we can watch a chase scene taking place in a swamp and overhead. You’ll feel like ducking when the bird being pursued, as well as a large jellyfish, other underwater creatures, and even the ogre in a flying machine with a practical propeller seem to come soaring into your face.
Let’s face it. This is a show for kids, especially younger ones, and the humor (including farting and puking) is decidedly juvenile. Still, even though there were no children there the night I went, the sparse adult audience had a good time chuckling at the silliness. I suspect the inner child in you will do so as well, but you’ll probably have even more fun if you’ve got a little one at your side.
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
Through January 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).