PUPPETS & POE Devised Defiance, directed by Shannon R. Davis

Why Poe?  The Theatre of Yugen asks:  Director Shannon R. Davis, in the program notes, answers that question: ” We culled through all of  Poe’s work, and explored what we found most timely, scary, beautiful, intense, and silly.   . . . chose pieces of his text to recite verbatim, pieces to inspire, non-textual explorations, and even used themes to spark ‘out of the box’ ideas. . .   “Inspired by Poe,” she goes on, “Our show has something for everyone: the Poe purist, the radical poet, the viewers, participants, and performers.”  Not exactly “for everyone” as is disclaimed in the program: “Puppets & Poe may feature hand-crafted puppets, but don’t let that fool you!  This contains mature themes, language, and content, including themes of suicide, death, and violence, and may not be suitable for children.  Viewer/parental discretion is advised.” For instance, one bit early on features two actors in oversized cardboard masks as well as a large papier mâché white tumescent penis and outsized fake hands perform a sad onanistic poem (which some prepubescent teens boys would most likely find hilarious).

The actors are “On” before the performance starts, even prior to the house opening.  When I approached the theatre on Mariposa in the theatre Artaud complex, a shabbily costumed actor wearing a red clown nose, had shinnied up a canopy strut.  Clinging there, he recited one of Poe’s works.  Actors do not break character from this moment on. Even box office personnel wear masks and/or are costumed and made-up.  One hi-light, and there are many, are the oversized papier-mâché props, masks, and heads.  Actor Alan Coyne’s gigantic head, which he wears braced on his shoulders, appears to be an exaggerated replica of himself as a floppy-haired spectacled accountant, requiring him to duck going through doorways.  (Next, Coyne will be acting in Custom Made’s “Cloud 9”)

It helps to know Poe’s works as there is nothing to indicate what’s to come next: a poem, an excerpt from a story – but which one? a jotting from his diary, a memo?  There are hints.  It got to be a guessing game for me.  I was happy that I’d read some of Poe’s poems and many of his short stories.  And of course I’d watched Vincent Price’s films : “Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” as well as those featuring a precursor to detective Sherlock Holmes – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for one.  The poems “Raven” and “Annabelle Lee” are recited beautifully.  At times, at opening and between bits, a black-coated, hunched figure – an actor – a wearing a huge, white bird head with a large, clacking beak “hops” on stage with an eerie but humorous announcement then “hops” off.   The bird – the Raven?- basically serves as a kind of Master of Ceremonies.

Sloe-eyed, svelte Shannon R. Davis (Director/actor), in a slinky, full-length, sleeveless red gown contrasting with her glossy, long, black hair, recites a few of Poe’s morbid love poems.   Others in the cast wear masks or are made up to represent those of another world (yet somehow I doubt they’d attract much attention in San Francisco- well, sans huge paper-mâché heads.)  Ariella Cooley is the sound designer for many productions; Puppets & Poe is her first as a performer. She is one of the cast who performs mostly sans mask (who can tell in in grouped masked bits anyway?), but wears ghoulish makeup for some pieces; Artistic Director, the wonderful Nick Ishumaru, has an extensive education in Japanese theatre and techniques.  In exaggerated eyeliner makeup, we see him in several Poe pieces.  Steven Flores, the consummate puppet master of the troupe, who is also a performer, has recently played Menelaus in Yugen’s “Helen.” After this production, he will join the Yale repertory theatre.  It seemed as though the exquisitely mime trained and performer Jamin Jollo was everywhere during the show (on the canopy strut outside as you enter?)  He may greet you as you enter.  Jollo has performed as a solo mime in circuses and theatres in Oregon.

A perfect show to see for Hallowe’en, PUPPETS & POE Devised Defiance  runs now through November 2; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM at Theatre of Yugen in the Theatre Artaud complex, 2840 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.  A little over 2 hours with an intermission.

Muni: 9 Bryant, 22 Fillmore, some street parking.

For detailed information, personnel interviews, tickets and more, visit www.theatreofyugen.org/poe.