Xperimental Puppetry Theater, the annual showcase of experimental puppetry and animation on view at the Center for Puppetry Arts through Sunday, May 19, provides artists in various mediums an opportunity to work for three months on a short piece, some of them building and working with puppets for the first time. The pieces, intended for adults only, range in materials from shadow puppets and black light to animation and object puppets, and vary in tone from the whimsical and whacked to the serious and surreal. It’s meant to be a mixed bag, and it usually is.
Especially interesting this year is “Time to Eat the Dogs,” written and directed by experienced Atlanta puppeteer Lee Bryan. Oftentimes, puppetry works intended for adults go the route of aiming for laughs, with an easily ironic or breezily whimsical tone. But Bryan ambitiously takes on some serious drama in a depiction of the Greely Expedition, a 19th-century trek to the North Pole by a team of 24 explorers that went horribly wrong, veering into starvation, madness and cannibalism. A shifting backdrop of simple white sheets becomes the tents and snowdrifts of an Arctic expedition, also serving as the screens for shadow puppets and projections. It’s a gruesome story that Bryan and his team handle deftly, without sensationalism, but with an astute sense of the compelling and discomforting elements at its heart.
Also well done is the short comic film “Ed Is a Portal,” by Sam Carter of New Puppet Order, in which a manual worker in a warehouse finds that his head has become the portal for a creature from another world. The film seamlessly mixes live action and puppetry (Ed’s house is populated by a diminutive trio of wisecracking, taquito-eating, demonlike creatures). Timing and invention are everything in comedy, and the film crams plenty of both into its nicely eloquent and distinctive three minutes.
“Sunflowers and Starry Nights,” directed by Timothy A. Hand, offers an interesting take on the works of Vincent Van Gogh, bringing different elements from his paintings to life: a crow, a sunflower, a wooden chair, an empty jacket. It’s inventive and visually appealing, but having the black-suited puppeteers stand in front of a backdrop of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” makes them stand out rather than disappear.
“Right Around the Corner” features a Muppet-like, neurotic housecat named Elliot — clearly suffering from undiagnosed agoraphobia, anxiety disorder and co-dependency with his owners — who bravely decides to deliver a misdelivered letter to the neighbors, encountering all sorts of adventures along the way. The film’s humor is well done, but its combination of live action and animation — it’s often unclear why we’re switching back and forth — can seem a bit bumpy. Also nice to see is an installation by Atlanta theater artist Johnny Drago that involves projection of images of puppetry and live action on a sculptural assemblage of white sheets, evoking a low-tech, childlike spookiness. The surreal boat of Tanner Slick’s “The Transmission Project” is also dreamlike and delightfully inventive, a large-scale sailboat that seems to be powered by a crank and a celestial bicycle wheel.
The varied works in each annual XPT always elicit reactions ranging from “OMG” to “WTF,” but it’s a show that’s worth checking out every year, as it always includes some strong work.