By James V. Ruocco
It's about commitment, timing, exposure, collaboration and feedback.
More importantly, it's a mission like no other.
The development and production of new plays and musicals by established or emerging playwrights is an artist-driven initiative.
It is also one of celebration and discovery for the theater, the production team, the artists and the audience, all of whom lay claim to being the first to see it, the first to perform it and the first to experience it.
This practice - the commission and presentation of world premiere events - is commonplace at several regional theatres throughout the country including the Geffen Playhouse, the American Repertory Theatre, the Goodman Theatre and the Firehouse Theatre as well as several regional theaters in Connecticut include Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre.
At Legacy Theatre in Branford, the tradition of producing new works continues with "Masters of Puppets," a brand-new play by Laurence Davis, a dramatist and storyteller challenged and rocked by the corrupt world of pro wrestling, its fake and real undercurrents, its unarmed mock combat, its star performers, its competitions, its rivalries, its power plays, its wealth, its publicity and its behind-the scenes manipulators. Or, as one might say, the puppeteers pulling the strings.
An aggressively witty piece of contemporary theatre, "Masters of Puppets" is lucidly perched between pro wrestling send up and impossibly confidant tell-all serve and manifest, mixed intoxicatingly with situations and dialogue that pulls you in, slaps you in the face, pushes your mind into overdrive and kicks you in the ass with motive, possibility, trick, lampooning and seamless legibility.
Its blend of ideas, humor and pathos, are combined with relished hauteur, deviousness and commitment. And, as the story evolves, the high level of acidity and stir created by Davis is always in top form, matched by scenes, characters, story arcs and verbiage that keep you thoroughly engaged, engrossed and wondering what exactly the hell is going to happen next.
As dramatist, Davis has much to unpack thematically as his characters run around in circles, hoping to avoid getting crushed, manipulated or seduced by the puppet masters of his engrossing scenario. Precisely structured, "Masters of Puppets" plays out in multiple scenes (Jamie Burnett's atmospheric scenic and lighting design complements and enhances the production's shifts of time and place most effectively), each encapsulating the brutality, seduction, fantasy, reality and mind games of Davis's playtext with eerie, moody, acute impact.
This being a play, with a beginning, middle and end, Davis only tells his audience so much. Who's lying? Who's telling the truth? What's fixed? What's rigged? Who's the manipulator? Who's the blackmailer? Who's going to die? Who's fucking whom? What secrets are going to be revealed? Will the big televised pro wrestling match succeed, fail or push its audience over the edge? It's a pitch anchored by so many possibilities, ticks and revelations, these questions and others easily astound, alarm and delight. Or prompt the obvious thought - "Bloody hell, I never saw that coming."
And therein, lies the power, the crackle, the grounding, the crumble and the reckonings of "Masters of Puppets."
Staging "Masters of Puppets" at Legacy Theatre, director Gabe McKinley takes Davis's character-driven narrative and creates a combative, intriguing tango of sorts that is both smart and savvy, ego clashing and bone-dry, putdown entertaining. His love for the theatrical medium is balanced by attention-seeking, shrewd antics and cleverly balanced sequencing that is often cinematic, artsy or red orange tinted.
Directorially, he knows how to frame a scene, when to take a breath, how to shift and manipulate, what to ultimately blurt out, what to cypher, what to highlight and how, in terms of storytelling, to completely mess with your senses. It's all cooked up with red-hot justification, mixed impressively with smug, smarmy, blistering evolution, art, structure, grit and sweat.
The immersive, in-your-face environs of Legacy Theatre, also contributes greatly to McKinley's interpretation of Davis's work. The closeness between actor and audience prompts immediate connection and interest in the ongoing story. Breaking down the fourth wall by having the actors come directly into the audience for certain pivotal moments works most advantageously as does McKinley's choice to slowly drop the front stage curtain down at the end of Act I during a heated, sexually charged moment between two of the on-stage characters. This trickle-by-trickle effect, timed perfectly by the director and his exceptional technical team not only adds a voyeuristic, peek-a-boo allure to the seduction itself but prompts an interval excitement for the remaining second half of the "Masters of Puppets" story.
"Masters of Puppets" stars Kurt Fuller as Victor Kragston, Amanda Detmer as Delia Kragston, Michael BobenHausen as Jace Powers, Michael Hogan as Rainey Dayes, Dana Ashbook as Ted Blasendale and Joshua Heggie as Leonard "Reaper" Barnett.
The cast, all well-chosen for the respective roles, bring plenty of emotion, angst, twist and confidence to the piece, which, in turn, heightens the play's attitude, footing, excitement, outrage, shock, fantasy and amusement. As a result, things are primed, ready, eerie and full of potential - ready to shake you up, knock you off balance or drop your jaw in amazement.
All six performers take a deep dive into the "Masters of Puppets" story with such a natural, committed trust, the play's narrative unspooling, erupting spins, tilts and slides easily complement Davis's play and its surprising presence, ubiquity and evolution.
PS: Wait until you see the red-headed dummy. Incredible stuff. But no spoilers here. That would spoil the character's interaction with the cast including the ovation-worthy curtain calls.
An articulate, edgy, bracingly apparent comedy-drama, "Masters of Puppets" swells with emotion while deftly illustrating the events and consequences here with heightened fun, humor, element and surprise.
It's fun. It's deep. It's wild. It's wicked. It's sexy. It's unpredictable.
Playwright Laurence Davis swerves into sarcasm and fantasy with bite and snap. Things are cleverly couched and diagnosed by director Gabe McKinley. And the cast - all six of them - glide and pivot center stage completely in sync with Davis's vision, McKinley's weighty inspiration and the brilliantly pitched puppetry that swallows them up whole and spits them out ready for round two or three or whatever comes their way.
Photos of "Masters of Puppets" courtesy of Samuel Bibbins