Addison — “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
Zach Dorn, or at least the character he portrays in Miniature Curiosa’s An Excruciatingly Ordinary Toy Theater Show, is the highly caffeinated merger of John Belushi’s boisterous imagination and Richard Lewis’ childhood-based roiling angst. Beating within that comedic confluence is the heart of Geppetto.
The intimate Stone Cottage theater at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival is a perfect place for it. The stage of Miniature Curiosa looks like what might happen if a mad scientist played with dollhouses. On a long desk, miniature sets with teeny four-inch paper-puppet characters are hyper-colorful and drawn with askew perspectives. They’re stacked on shelves and rotate on platters, rising like warped apartment buildings.
Dorn appears from behind the seeming chaos and begins to spin his self-absorbed tales, diary entries that are, as promised, at times excruciatingly ordinary. Other times they’re fanciful dreams and Mittyesque fantasies. Off we go on an episodic tale of rivalry among balloon artists, pivoting around the nefarious megalomaniac balloon superstar Lenny. A “twist-off ensues at one point, leaving the Tampa restaurant where they ply their trade for tips “screaming of latex.”
Dorn’s character grows as an entertainer once he realizes that his idea of poop puppets is not a good one. As his balloon skills display mastery of the art, he’s is lured to the dark side of ballooning, becoming like his dreaded nemesis Lenny. He leaves the “twisting lifestyle” when he realizes that it’s the “most humiliating job in history.” Lenny’s bid before Shark Tank to become a balloon-puppet impresario is crushed, leaving his victims vindicated.
Woven through it is Dorn’s battle to get an $850 security deposit back from his Turkish ex-landlord Chaz Elliot. Segues between tales are recordings that fans allegedly left on the Elliot’s answering machine. There’s a short bit being booed for his lame six-second tale at a saddest-story contest that comes out of nowhere and leaves. A section on hanging out with celebrities is similarly superfluous.
Literature, it’s not. The charm of Miniature Curiosa is watching how the low-tech theatrical magic is done, with jaw-dropping admiration for Dorn being able to talk rapidly while manipulating a myriad of props. The stories may be ordinary; the techniques are anything but. There were many “whoa” comments from the audience Saturday night at the displays of ambidextrous storytelling.
With a small, digital, hand-held camera Dorn narrates while video projections appear on a screen above the set. He zooms through the sets of houses and streets, all of a hyper-colorful, crazy off-kilter design. He holds a stick puppet in front of the sets for the more active characters.
Some parts of the vignettes are entirely shadow puppets and provide a nice rest for the eyes. Flip books are done slow (á la Demetri Martin), with the images used to give punchlines to the narrative, or flipped rapidly by a mechanical device to create live animation. Throughout the whole thing, puppets with strings never appear. The only string is the floss Zorn uses in a gag that opens and closes the show.
The constant ricochet between storytelling and speaking to the audience, between the balloon artists’ story arc and all the rest, and the contradictory emotionality of Dorn’s character, is dazzling—and exhaustive. It keeps audience intimacy at bay. A Miniature Curiosa piece that creates one world and allows viewers to become deeply absorbed in it would be a superb modern recreation of fairy tales that seems vital for today.
- 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10
View complete Out of the Loop Fringe Festival here