There's a lot to like about the Rogue Artists Ensemble, a new theater company comprising a bunch of supertalented former UC Irvine theater geeks.
They're original: the first play they've decided to mount, D Is for Dog, is a sci-fi thriller written by the entire company and is indebted heavily to both Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone.
They're aware: most of the company tilts to the left politically and bleeds green when it comes to the environment. Those concerns pop in D Is for Dog's setting, a post-apocalyptic world in which most living things have been wiped from the face of the planet and civilization has been rebuilt on the saccharine model of a 1950s TV family.
But you have to like the Rogues most because they're positively queer about puppets. Artistic director Sean T. Cawelti (who also directs D Is for Dog) has been into puppets since age four and has turned what is, for most kids, a summer-afternoon fascination with natty sock puppets into a legitimate artistic craft.
"I've always told stories that way, and when I became a director, I was determined to tell my stories without any of the limitations of live theater," he said. "Puppetry is a freeing tool, and it allows you to do things that are impossible when you're using live actors—like playing with scale and size. There are so many things you can do with a puppet that you can't do with an actual actor. With that said, it's also amazingly difficult: many times, to direct a puppet, you have to have as many as three humans manipulating it."
When used effectively, Cawelti says, puppets can also provoke emotional reactions that the greatest human actors can't, which is exactly what happens in D Is for Dog. When they hit the stage, the audience is jolted with the awareness that what's transpiring isn't just another ironic spin on the '50s. (The first act follows the comings and goings of Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. They live with their children, Dick and Jane, in an apparently perfect household where the daily schedule is built around culture cues from the living room TV.)
Come the second act, things start getting weird. Horrific six-foot-tall puppets emerge from the shadows, recounting strange tales of a world long before this one, where water flowed freely and things called animals prowled the earth. "When the puppets walk on stage, there are gasps," Cawelti said. "It's totally horrific and gory. We could have used human actors, but there is something in the context of this play that needs a supernatural or ghostlike something, and a human actor could never have achieved the posture or physicality of these puppets."
As the play progresses, we see the Rogers' dream is truly a nightmare: their life and their world have gone hideously wrong.
"Through our whole rehearsal process, we've been fascinated with using these ancient forms of storytelling, like puppets, to address something so kitschy as '50s television," Cawelti said. "We've really tried to merge those elements into what we think is a very funny show but also something cautionary about how this could be the road we're headed down if we don't change."
D Is for Dog by the Rogue Artists Ensemble, Garden Grove Playhouse, 12001 Saint Mark St., Garden Grove, (714) 897-5122; www.rogueartists.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 28. $13-$15.
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