Richardson — Puppets can act as a filter for language and emotion. It is uncanny and detached from flesh and blood, which actually lends it the ability to speak more authentically; to say and do things that a human cannot. In Justin Locklear’s Doom McCoy and the Death Nugget, at the University of Texas at Dallas University Theatre, a puppet goes on a strange and disjointed existential adventure for…something.
To summarize the plot of Doom McCoy is difficult. The title character is cursed in some way and is able to move through time, and apparently inter-dimensionally, or in whatever way leads him to a brothel run by Madam Satan. He’s on a quest to lift this curse, and unintentionally kills a lot of people along the way. It’s strange in that the plot is linear, but still difficult to follow as there are leaps in the story that are given little-to-no exposition so that the audience can follow and understand what odd thing is happening now.
Doom starts out in a Groundhog Day kind of situation, but soon finds himself in a plot not unlike the first Ghost Rider movie. On top of that, there are a lot of fourth wall-breaking meta jokes that acknowledge it as just a performance. But those jokes seem out of place compared to the rest of the story. Then, from scene to scene, new elements are introduced without much, if any, explanation. And, with some of these revelations, a little guidance would be nice. After all, the voiceover is an old Western trope, and is used in the show. Overall, the script is trying to be so many things that it never focuses on what the core of the story is. Puppets, self-reference, comedy, tension, absurdism, parody, etc.
It’s a lot to take in, and ends up being just, kind of, strange.
Locklear has assembled an ensemble of actor/puppeteer UTD students in Stephanie Oustalet, Connor Spencer, Austin Schmidt, Andrew Smith, Michelle Salazar, Marissa Lopez and Natsumi Bailey. Every performer plays several roles, often switching a character off from scene to scene. For instance, Doom is played by several cast members at one time or another. This can be an interesting tactic if there’s intentionality behind it. Unfortunately, they are overmatched by the challenge of acting whilst controlling puppets. All too often, performances are sacrificed in favor of getting movements right. It resulted in several inaudible lines on Saturday night. And, that’s from the front row.
The plot was already a bit difficult to follow, at least in the details. Why is he cursed, and what exactly is the death nugget, which only really gets mentioned at the end?
It’s difficult to act as a puppeteer. If anyone would know that, it’s Locklear. Working with puppets in this show is no mistake. Locklear is a master puppeteer, as proven with his work at the Matt Posey’s Ochre House. He just hasn’t transferred that knowledge and experience to his cast in this case—but granted, it's tough to teach such a craft in such a short time period.
The puppets, though, are far and away the highlight of the show. Locklear knows how to make some great puppets. The creativity is unrivaled and it’s a joy to watch them move and interact. He works on different scales, with a variety of materials, and utilizes the excellent set and props, by Bryan Wofford to evoke a range of emotions from tense to hilarious.
There’s a lot to like in Doom McCoy. The story just needs some tweaking. Not that everything has to be explained. Heaven knows exposition can be incredibly boring. But, given the absurd, and often comedic self-referential nature of the script, there’s a way to do it so that it doesn’t detract from the aesthetic and flow of the play. It’s got a lot of cool pieces in play, but it just needs that “nugget” to pull it all together.