Puppeteers of America National Festival
review by Panacea Theriac (aka Miss Pussycat)
It is remarkable to see a live puppet show that has such detail and character development and moves at a fast pace.
Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Summer 2019 Vol. 70 No. 3)
“Horror of the Nightshade” is a dazzling shadow puppet show created by Jason Thibodeaux and Sarah Frechette that focuses on the story of two kids, Kevin and Troy, in Portland, Oregon. One day while riding the bus, Troy convinces Kevin to come with him, instead of going home from school. What follows is an apocalyptic journey, and a prophecy foretold by an album of the band Boudica. Troy is menacing and pushy, a foil to the more innocent Kevin. Or perhaps they are just different sides of the writer, Jason Thibodeaux.
The show is very elaborate and evokes a graphic novel or wood-cuts. It is clear that the creators know how to draw and have a film background, as they go for close-ups and subplots throughout the show. Flying to the PofA Festival this summer, they had seven checked suitcases full of cut-outs for the show. I would imagine there were hundreds of shadow puppet pieces in that luggage. It is remarkable to see a live puppet show that has such detail and character development and moves at a fast pace.
Some of my favorite minutiae were the band T-shirts on the characters, such as Dead Moon and Danzig. The music in the soundtrack is also very good, from New Orleans bounce to metal and punk from the northwest. It establishes the credibility of the characters, and the time and place as the story unfolds. Many of the characters are straight from a subculture that | also live in, with people who work in restaurants, play in bands, take drugs, and have crazy friends that practice witchcraft or have recently gotten out of prison. This is not an old-fashioned fairy tale geared for a PG audience.
A more vulnerable side of Troy is slowly revealed, and we are shown that his mother is dead. He was a little kid who had to call for help as she died, and then went home to the empty house. His Danzig T-shirt was his mother’s, as was the Boudica album. Although he is a bad kid, we start to understand why, and maybe he is not so bad after all. There are a couple of moments when the characters Troy and Kevin seem to turn into the other for a flash, as their crazy trip continues.
The voices in this show are done live, with a prerecorded atmospheric soundtrack throughout. | was impressed by the production value of this whole show, including the voices and soundtrack. There was a moment when Thibodeaux went off-script to make a comment to the audience, which was when I knew it was not done with prerecorded voices — but it was all done so very well that I could not tell at first. | always appreciate when the puppeteer can reach through and spontaneously comment to the audience and then go back and be invisible again. Another time, the puppeteers ran across the stage, but behind the screen so that it was their four silhouettes. We were almost allowed to see the puppeteers, but not exactly in the flesh—not just yet. The illusion was kept intact, but the audience was teased; this is a live show, and the puppeteers are in control. Controlling the audience is one of the strongest skills that a performer can have, especially for a puppeteer. The whole idea of a puppet show is that the puppets have magically come to life and are talking. It is a hard thing to pull off. And it is hard to keep the audience engaged when you are hiding behind a sheet. But this show did it! They pulled off the magic trick. The puppets were the stars of the show.
Handheld flashlights are used to manipulate the depth and space of the hand-cut illustrations of this innovative show. We had a long talk about batteries one day at the festival.
Sarah and Jason started the Nightshade project after collaborating with the band Japanther in New York in 2005. Thibodeaux later moved to Portland to work for Laika on Coraline and other stop-motion productions. Sarah moved to Portland with all of their shadows in 2008.
Also puppeteering in this show were Will Schutze and Christopher Rabilwongse. Will flew out to Portland from North Carolina to learn and rehearse the show for two weeks before the Nightshade team flew to Minneapolis. You may have seen his delightful show “Mr. Bonetangle” that week at the festival as well; he set up outside the Slam. Chris has worked with Sarah and Jason before, and is a regular member of the talented Nightshade collective.
“Horror of the Nightshade” sets a new rung on the top of the ladder for contemporary puppetry.