(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
In The Wars of Heaven: Smackdown! (playing now through May 15 at Salvage Vanguard Theater), the Trouble Puppet Theater Company has created an interesting new work that combines epic puppetry with philosophical debate and, naturally, pro wrestling.
The plot of Smackdown! (the second part of The Wars of Heaven trilogy, though no previous knowledge is required) is a bit silly to recount: the angel Uriel and the demon Behemoth engage in a series of philosophical debates about faith, God, and rebellion, while those debates are physically represented by human/puppet hybrids forced to battle to the death.
This, we are told, is a sport that has been ongoing for millennia, but on this night the humans figure out a way to fight back, seemingly a unique event (though we are left questioning just how singular it really is). In between rounds, we are treated to a multimedia presentation of various clips of televangelists and commercials from the 1970s through the early 2000s.
Smackdown!’s structure – written and directed by Connor Hopkins – seems to be an excuse for two goals: dramatic representation of philosophical debate, and beautiful, precise puppetry work.
The former falls a bit flat, as it uses certain tropes about faith, belief, and power that are common to many previous explorations of those ideas using the physical embodiments of gods, angels, and demons.
The puppetry, however, is sumptuous and delightful. Uriel and Behemoth are truly epic and imposing, while the humanoid/animal hybrid warriors evoke sympathy and pity in the way their smaller, sometimes adorable, frames are forced into bloodthirsty battle in which they (mostly) want no part.
All of the performers – the puppets/puppeteers, the nameless combatants, and Uriel (voiced with Old Testament grandeur by Jay Young) and Behemoth (voiced, dripping with rage and spite, by Michelle Dahlenburg), are delightful, full of energy and force. The integration of the show’s multimedia elements with the live performers gets a bit glitchy at times (perhaps purposefully), but they are more than able to smoothly roll with the punches.
Smackdown also has something of a pre-show, featuring LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists) performing thematically appropriate opera classics. There is an inspired bit of puppetry here, as well, a small, adorable moment that provides a heart-warming counterpoint to the epic battles that are to come.
Though uneven in terms of its story and its lofty goals, The Wars of Heaven: Smackdown provides a beautiful display of craft and skill that entertains, energizes, and might just make you nostalgic for some of the infomercials of your youth.