Review: Undark - A Radioactive Puppet Play by Trouble Puppet Theatre Company
by David Glen Robinson
Trouble Puppet Theater’s first production in a while, Undark: A Radioactive Puppet Play, remains in development. The performances at the Vortex in east Austin were supported by a Workshop Grant from the Jim Henson Foundation. That organization, the Olympus of puppetry, may give a full production grant to Undark for production in about a year’s time if its leadership ultimately likes what it sees in the workshop edition. That is the stimulus for the full outpouring of the vast creative skills of Connor Hopkins and his Trouble Puppet associates in this streamlined version of a real-life horror story. As in all works in progress productions, the gaps leave one with a less-than-satisfied feeling, but there is still a lot to love in this entertainment.
The story is of unregulated research and experimentation from World War I through the 1920s. During The Great War, the focus was the need for improved battlefield equipment, specifically illuminated timepieces and dialed instruments that could be read in the dark, hidden from the enemy The young female factory workers on the home front who painted the illuminating radioactive compounds on the dials were seen as contributing to the war effort almost as much as the young men who went overseas. This was after Madame Curie’s discovery of radium and ionizing radiation; she coined the term “radioactivity.” Bizarrely, Curie carried out research in the medical issues and uses of radioactive materials on and in the human body, including X-ray devices for diagnosing wounds of soldiers, on World War I battlefields. Knowledge, however, did not raise awareness of the need to regulate dangerous substances; in vast irony, Curie died of radiation-related illness.
The fascinating glow of radiation became popular in postwar America. Trouble Puppet projected views of advertisements of cosmetics and tonics for application and ingestion of radioactive substances, only now viewed ironically. Back then, the products were hawked as health aids for glowing beauty and as cures for diabetes, cancer, indigestion, sleep disorders, impotence, and you-name-it.
Undark: A Radioactive Puppet Play proceeds in tone and atmosphere similarly to The Jungle, Hopkins's 2009 animation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (click for CTXLT review). Sinclair's work was a muckraking and socially conscious indictment of the Chicago meatpacking industry. The book gave great impetus to the surging reform movements of the early twentieth century and indirectly spurred the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Protests against the sicknesses of radium workers led indirectly and over great obstacles to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Shadow puppets do most of the heavy lifting in this story. The only 3-D puppet is Mollie, a naïve teenager who sought a job in a radium plant and died of radiation sickness at the age of 24. The Mollie puppet is well up to Trouble Puppet’s standards, and its excellent period dress is credited to Jess Bee. The back-projected shadows and multimedia presentations on the large upstage screen showed moving shadows depicting WWI battlefields, factories, city streets with trolley cars, scrolling transcontinental maps, dance halls, and a cemetery worthy of any number of horror movies. K. Eliot Haynes's sound design with period music and sound effects contributed substantially to bringing the shadowy study to life. I was given a rare backstage tour and learned more about the crafty brilliance of Trouble Puppet and some of their secrets. The puppet cutouts so well-etched in shadow against the screen are done largely from cardboard beer flats. This is inspiration for anyone who owns a box cutter.
The reactions by workers doing only what they could—organize—are vividly evoked in photographs projected in the show. Corporate America's reaction was swift and severe. Company lawyers argued that the widespread lesions, running sores, hemorrhaging, and internal organic diseases, were due to, you guessed it, syphilis. They dismissed any connection to radiation.
Producer Connor Hopkins's pre-curtain speech stressed the workshop nature of the presentation. He signaled gaps and areas to be developed further. One or more additional 3-D puppets may be imagined and fabricated. Those cautions should have appeared in the publicity, somewhat more than “work-in-progress performance.” This was a definite need, particularly since the 45-minute presentation charged the usual Vortex Theatre sliding scale ticket prices, no workshop discount.
A gap of consequence was the incomplete masking of the backstage. When worklights in back were turned on to prepare following scenes, light reflected from the walls and ceiling of the Vortex bounced brightly into the audience. This effect signaled every shadow play change of scene. Noticeable lighting bleeds diminished some of the theatre magic and surprises Trouble Puppet always strives to attain.
Connor Hopkins was the lead production and puppet designer and builder. Chris Owen designed the projection media, based on admirable research on 1920s advertisements. Kenneth Gall designed lighting. The stage manager was Jelena Stojiljkovic, and Emily Weerts coordinated the production. The production designer and fabricator assistants and onstage actuators and actors were the hardworking Melissa Vogt, Aileen Adler, Tamarind King, and Catherine Collett. Kudos to them. Charlotte Bell was an additional production designer and builder. Kudos always to Bonnie Cullum, owner and producing artistic director of The Vortex, who has definitely built it back better.
Austin audiences gratefully received the workshop production despite its taped-together aspects. This one makes us impatient for full production once the Henson Foundation gives it the thumbs-up.
Undark: A Radioactive Puppet Play ran from May 27 toJune 11, 2022, at The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., east Austin.
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
Trouble Puppet Theater Company presents:
UNDARK: A Radioactive Puppet Play
An original historical play by Connor Hopkins
May 27 - June 12, 2022 @ The VORTEX
Thurs - Sat @ 8 pm/ Sun @ 6 pm