Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Elmo, stated in a Nightline interview that children are not surprised to see a large man in his 50’s standing behind his creation, moving his mouth in sync with Elmo. “They don’t look at me,” he says.
Rough House, a company specializing in using puppetry to create unique theatrical experiences, builds upon the same phenomenon throughout their original show Sad Songs for Bad People: A Puppet Play. From the start of the first musical number—the betrayed-lover-turned-murderer ballad “Delilah”—eyes are glued to a felt-faced lounge singer narrating his tale beside a screen where silhouette puppets present the action. Watching the actors is fun, but the focus always shifts back to the life that they bring to each puppet through choreographed movement.
Sad Songs for Bad People, featuring puppet design and direction by Mike Olean, delivers on its promise for a night of music, puppets, and murder. The nine songs presented by the cast of six musicians and puppeteers are stitched together by connections to death, each involving a very different visual experience.
A comedic highlight comes from “Me and Little Andy” by Dolly Parton. This rendition, with Claire Saxe using hand puppets of a little girl and her even littler dog and Maddy Low playing the straight man, captures the tone behind a song that, despite its morbid ending, features country lyrics like “Ain’t got no gingerbread / ain’t got no candy / Ain’t ya got an extra bed for me and little Andy.”
Like many cabaret-styled shows, Sad Songs for Bad People transitions from one number to the next with a series of bridges that explore the various subtexts invoked by each ballad. Between the earlier, lighter numbers, musicians Sean Hughes and Andrew Yearick trade puns. As the play transitions to more emotional songs, a plot device follows a casket that moves about the stage between numbers building suspense to the inevitable opening of the lid. This scene leads to Tom Wait’s haunting ballad “Georgia Lee” about a girl found dead and the questions of faith that follow. When a butterfly lands on Georgia Lee’s puppet finger, the company creates a powerful artistic image juxtaposing the beauty of life with the sadness of death.
Even during the darker numbers, Sad Songs for Bad People is always fun and innovative. Performances continue at the Neo-Futurariam Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights until December 12.