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A CurtainUp Review
The Rapture


(Photo: Orlando Marra)
Puppets and politics don't usually mix, especially when fundamentalism is involved. A case could be made for Punch and Judy, and possibly Max Headroom, but the American theatrical oeuvre is somewhat lacking in puppet pundits.

The Obie-award winning troupe Great Small Works seeks to change this with their latest piece, The Rapture Project now playing at HERE. The show purports to examine the influence of religion and fundamentalism in contemporary American culture and politics. A timely topic, to be sure, but one not best executed with marionettes. While the Satan and Ghost-of-Susan-Sontag puppets alone are worth the price of admission (especially when they go head-to-head at the end), the play as a whole is uneven.

Great Small Works mixes the puppetry with live action, but the live action doesn't add anything to the performance. With two narrative exceptions, this involves nothing more than dancing actors in funny hats or actors in funny hats playing musical instruments. The puppets, while cute, are amateurish, and I'm not sure the audience is meant to see the actors' hands manipulating the puppet strings.

The story touches on both Muslim and Christian fundamentalism, but fails to explore the culture clash between them in any depth. We hear a lot about Biblical interpretations of the Rapture and the End Times, but nothing really about what that means to Christian Americans or how it may affect everyone else. And, shockingly, there is not one mention of George W. Bush, though the piece does touch on the war in Iraq.

Despite the weaknesses cited , the troupe and the production are full of heart. The Creationist tour of the Grand Canyon is priceless (if a little disturbing), and the concept does manage to draw on classic Sicilian pupper theater's Orlando Furioso cycles which performed the clash of Christians and Muslims in the nineteenth century. The singing and dancing, while extraneous, is well-done and also draws on Italian folk roots.

Though the superficial exploration of weighty issues is meant to be comical, the production as a whole comes off not so much lighthearted as just silly. Still, given current events, audiences can probably only take so much earnest and deep examination of fundamentalism. Hence the spastic puppet showdown at the end—watch Satan and Susan Sontag fight to the death! See Muslim punk extremists from Buffalo take on Al Jazeera! Amaze at Hasidic Jews trying to build a stadium for the Dodgers in order to speed up Armageddon! (Don't ask.)

The backdrop, with its intricate faux-1920s black and white religious drawings, is fantastic. The rest of the design is a little distracting, especially the hats and the music.

Ultimately The Rapture Project is just that—a project, hopefully a still-developing one. I'd love to see this with a more substantial script and a little more polish and flair. It's a great beginning, even though it isn't quite rapturous yet.

A word about the venue: HERE's new configuration is a bit like the uber-hip New York club. You have to know where it is in order to find it. The ticket office has been relocated to the side of the building, and you'll have to go back outside and reenter a different door to get to the (downstairs, not handicapped-accessible) theater. The staff has helpfully put down some red tape to direct confused theater-goers.

The Rapture Project
Created and performed by John Bell, Trudi Cohen, Stephen Kaplin, and Jenny Romaine, with performers Shane Baker, Andrea Lomanto, and Jessica Lorence, and musician Jessica Lurie
Design: Isaac Bell, Gaby Cryan, Joe Dobkin, Rob Ebeltoft, Marsha Gildin, Andrea Lomanto, Mornography, Alessandra Nichols, Roberto Rossi, and Clare Dolan
Sound Design: Jessica Lurie and Jenny Romaine
Running Time: One hour and ten minutes, no intermission
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, between Spring and Broome. 212-352-3101
From 1/04/07 to 1/21/07
Thurs and Fri @ 7 pm, Sat @ 7 and 10:30 pm, Sun @ 2 pm.
Tickets: $20

Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based onJanuary 6 performance
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