Is that a Hand up Your Ass or are You just Trying to Amuse Me?: ‘Puppetry of the Lobster’ by Killing My Lobster

Puppetry of the Lobster banner

“I suppose that he’s an alter ego. But he’s a little snarkier than I am – slightly wise. Kermit says things I hold myself back from saying.”
– Jim Henson on his relationship with Kermit the Frog

When Theatre Bay Area announced this year’s TBA Awards nominees, they also decided to expand the parameters for next year. In addition to “traditional” theatre productions, the awards will now recognize such diverse categories as improv, cabaret, and even drag, to name but a few. On the one hand, this increases the potential number of shows and companies eligible for nomination – which is already a pretty crowded pool; such is the embarrassment of riches that is Bay Area entertainment – on the other hand, it recognizes that “theatre” isn’t limited to the traditional scripted play.

I gave ACT’s recent production of A Night with Janis Joplin a lot of shit for being a glorified tribute concert, only counting as theatre in the flimsiest sense. However, I’ve also spent the last few years listening to talented local theatre artists argue over their “outsider” status: some of them like being off the radar for awards recognition; others are offended that they aren’t considered legit theatre because they don’t put on traditional shows. Just as theatre could benefit from a more diverse range of stories, so too could it benefit from a diverse range of performance types.

Critiquing sketch presents an interesting challenge, as one is tempted to review each piece individually. Whether it’s sketch comedy (SNL) or sketch performance art (The Neo-Futurists), I’m a believer in critiquing the show in its entirety. Sure, some pieces will work better than others, but unless one piece truly stands apart from the others (for better or for worse), then it should be looked at as an entire tapestry, rather a collection of loose threads. And if you’re gonna talk about sketch comedy in SF, Killing My Lobster is as good a start as any.

KML logo by Kenny Bourquin

Logo by Kenny Bourquin for Killing My Lobster

It’s hard to believe KML is 20 years old. I first found out about them six-or-seven years ago. Several friends of mine had been involved as both writers and performers. I enjoyed the shows and became a loyal regular (I still have my magnets for Fridge Magnet and Fridge Magnet, Too), but I also wound up lending an ear to those same friends who would vent their frustrations about lack of credit, lack of payment, and the direction of the company. Namely, that there wasn’t one. KML seemed to be a ship with no captain – adrift at sea, picking up and dropping off scavengers all the time. But hey, even pirates can be fun when they’re not worrying about scurvy and head lice.

Fortunately, KML picked up not one, but two captains in the form of Executive Director Millie Brooks and Artistic Director Allison Page. During their tenure, the company has become one of the most consistent and reliable comedy troupes in the Bay Area; one that favors mining for laughs with experimentation and out-of-the-box thinking, rather than recurring gags and characters. My personal differences with Page notwithstanding, I credit her and Brooks for steadying a ship that was in danger of permanently capsizing. So, it makes sense that, in celebration of their 20th year and for their first award-eligible show, they’d move out of their comfort zones and try a show focused almost entirely around puppets.

[NOTE TO SELF: The next time I do a review of a one-hour sketch show, be sure to not precede with a long-winded intro like that above. That is all.]

Puppetry of the Lobster - 1

Aren’t we all someone’s puppet? Photo by James Jordan for Killing My Lobster

One knows upon entering that a non-profit theatre troupe won’t have the same resources as a Broadway production of Avenue Q, so KML instead focuses on the strongest resource at their disposal: their talent. As is their custom, the program doesn’t credit individual sketches, just one spot listing all of the actors and another the pool of writers. This makes it tough to know whom to credit for your favorite sketches, but it appeals to someone like me who looks at a work as a whole rather than as pieces.

Though puppetry is selling point of this show, most of the sketches could easily have been done by normal human actors. Several contain references to classic puppet-based pop culture (there’s a cameo by Lamb Chop, and Sesame Street’s “People in Your Neighborhood” is twice used to paradoxical effect), but they often involve ordinary things like being pestered by a bee at a diner, wondering why pirates have dildos, and Blue Apron sending you a “meal” you have to prepare yourself. Mind you, these sketches aren’t bad, they just didn’t really need the puppets.

The few puppet-specific pieces include the opening piece (probably my favorite) of a woman accidentally wandering into a world of the smiling fuzzy folk, a tennis match observed only by several pairs of eyes, and the closing piece where “Rainbow Connection” becomes an hilarious Alex Jones-esque list of conspiracy theories. There’s also the transitional music’s clever use of such songs as the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell classic “I’m Your Puppet” and the Italian-pop-song-turned-immortal-Muppet-earworm “Mah Nà Mah Nà”.

Low budget or no, the cast of puppets is impressive. They run the range ordinary socks acting out Peter & Wendy and the ring-based eyes at the aforementioned tennis match to full Muppet-style marionettes and some grotesqueries from Shadow Circus, who allowed this handsome chap to cameo in KML’s show. One’s attention constantly shifts back and forth from the puppets proper to their black-laden puppeteers. Clearly most of them are new to this kind of performance – and they only had a few weeks, where other puppeteers have months and years – so they frequently fall back on their own human faces to convey the emotions they might not all know how to operate.

Puppetry of the Lobster - 2

The Story of Donald Trump. Photo by Andy Strong for Killing My Lobster.

Though I didn’t fully see the necessity of the puppets for the majority of the show, I appreciated KML once again trying something different. The show had far more laughs than lulls, flies by at a brisk 57 minutes (with the shows starting at 7pm), and it’s at PianoFight, meaning food and drink are in arm’s reach. If that’s good way to kill an hour, I don’t know what is?

Just don’t bring the kids.

GRADE:                                 B

Puppetry of the Lobster is scheduled to run until the 7th of October at PianoFight in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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