On a Stark and Dormy night in the tower of the Malthouse Theatre, strange happenings are afoot. The lights flicker and the wind howls (via playback), as the characters of Bunk Puppets’ sci-fi thriller are brought to life on stage by Christian Bagin and James Pratt. The production combines shadow puppetry and live-action characters to tell the story of Fox’s Family Fun Park, a theme park crossed with a zoo. The park is run by anxious father Marty Fox, who, thanks to the Russian mobster on his case, is forced to get inventive in dealing with his financial struggles. As Fox fights to keep the park afloat, his daughter Jessica brings her own issues back to the zoo, as she comes home from a fishing trip with an unexpected extra-terrestrial catch, placing everyone’s lives at risk.
Stark and Dormy follows a strong narrative arc, but technical execution is the key point of intrigue. Shadow puppets are used in a televisual fashion to act out dramatic soap opera with reverse-shot sequences, B-Grade thriller montages and corny action scenes. Bunk Puppets overtly draw attention to their performance techniques, there are no screens covering Bagin and Pratt as they show off their well-rehearsed and usually precise puppetry. We see each transition from puppet to puppet and each change of the cardboard set, even as front of stage live-action scenes and audience interaction is cleverly used to cover these intervals.
Whilst the puppetry transitions are smooth, the character shifts are masterful. Both Bagin and Pratt play a host of different roles, but most notably they play many of the same roles. The use of puppets enables this, but it is the matching accents of the two actors that ensures characters are instantly identifiable without a second thought for who is playing them at the time. The live-action characters are easily distinguishable due to Emilie Bloom’s minimal but effective costumes. Staple items, including a Russian fur cap, large glasses and goofy teeth, are used to mark out each role.
Another strength of the show is its willingness to break the fourth wall. Inside the narrative, audience members are welcomed to the Fun Park, dine out at a fancy restaurant and become the unsuspecting victims of ping-pong ball gunfire as the park is defended from an attack. Involving the crowd so often is a risk, with the potential to irritate more than excite, but the playfulness of the actors in such a small and intimate venue draws a warm response. Both Bagin and Pratt also win the respect of the crowd through their attention to detail, as food orders and blackmail techniques offered up by audience members early in the show are utilised much later in the narrative, to generous laughs of recognition.
As the narrative tension builds, a misplaced pop culture reference momentarily jars, but the audience quickly forgives. The show’s staging techniques escalate with the story, moving the light source for the puppets to the front is a simple but exciting variation used as the narrative approaches its climax. It would be rude to spoil the final projection technology exhibited, but it provides a platform for Bagin and Pratt to display a true depth of puppetry skill.
Stark and Dormy is an impressive feat of performance. The story is entertaining but a little predictable at times, however its execution by Bagin and Pratt as a vibrant puppet/live action hybrid truly captures the eye. Jeff Achtem’s direction cohesively co-ordinates many moving parts and it is exciting to watch an ambitiously different style of comedy. Not every joke lands, but like many of the Hollywood blockbusters the show’s narrative evokes, as a spectacle Stark and Dormy shines.
Stark and Dormy by Bunk Puppets runs at Malthouse Theatre in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from 28 March — 21 April 2019.
Photography by Andrew Wuttke