How can puppetry be profound? Rough House's performances have an idea 

A Chicago arts collective uses puppets to break into the human psyche

click to enlarge Some of the handmade puppets that will be used in Ubu the King - ALL IMAGES ARE BY JOE MAZZA
  • Some of the handmade puppets that will be used in Ubu the King
  • All images are by Joe Mazza

Some dark and twisted puppets are coming to Indy. Well, their master manipulators will be doing the driving. Rough House, a DIY performance art collective out of Chicago, will be showing (what is likely) the first rendition of Ubu the King with puppets.

The play was originally written in French around 1896 by Alfred Jarry and was hailed as being one of the birthplaces of Modernism and setting the stage for Theatre of the Absurd. The story echoes Macbeth with a touch of Hamlet, but the archetype of Ubu is something that artistic director of Rough House, Mike Oleon, finds enamoring.

"It kind of serves as an archetype for a great deal of sort of sad, horrible ... sloppy types of characters," says Oleon.

He compares Ubu to characters like Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin. He pauses and laughs: "I was going to say Trump."

He refers to Ubu as a bit of a lovable asshole.

click to enlarge Rough House also does live music with each show
  • Rough House also does live music with each show

"It's really strange that he exists, and I think it really speaks to human psychology that we can find something that is so mean and cruel and self-indulgent as endearing," says Oleon. "... I like the idea that he sort of resides inside all of us. Anyone has the potential to go in this direction if you give into your whims and every impulse ... eventually, you will turn into a monster sort of
like this."

Converting the French play into something that could translate well with puppets was a challenge, but right up Rough House's alley.

"Puppets are so physical — and this is such a word-heavy play — a lot of what we had to do was chop it all down,"
says Olean.

Rough House members, like managing director Claire Saxe, see profound potential in puppets and what they can convey in the theater. The group began as an illegal DIY space under a storefront. Now, Rough House builds their own intricate puppets, has their masters sharing stage presence with them and provides live music during each show. It's a tall order, but Oleon and Saxe believe that puppets can reach a different plane of storytelling.

click to enlarge A Rough House actor
  • A Rough House actor

"Puppetry allows us to tell — practically allows us to tell — stories that we wouldn't be able to tell with human performers," says Saxe. "[When there are no humans] it allows people to deal with the material on their own terms."

"Puppets themselves are innocent," says Oleon, discussing how they can be seen as juvenile. "... The puppet lends itself to more nuanced intelligent storytelling because it doesn't have the baggage that a human being does ... When a puppet is on stage, it inhabits its role with 100 percent sincerity ... When you let go of a puppet, it fully inhabits its death, and the time in between it fully inhabits the character it was created to portray."

He notes that there's always a part of the audience that knows the actor on stage who "died" is just fine.

"The puppet cannot help but commit fully," says Oleon. "I think audiences have a really strong response to that ... You might find yourself connecting more deeply than you would with a human performance."

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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more

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