Don’t Put Your Hand Up My Ass And Call Me A Puppet

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I’ve seen lots of kinky stuff in my day, but I’ve rarely seen something as depraved as watching a grown man, in this case a good-looking young French guy, tongue kiss a sock puppet on stage.

His accompanying gurgling, moaning and drooling upped the ante. I didn’t mind the panda puppet masturbating, but I’m too cool for drool. I was initially attracted to the production of Jerk, a one-man puppet show from France and part of both the Under the Radar Festival and Coil 2010, by P.S. 122’s advertisement cautioning the piece was for “mature audiences only,” with the adjectives stark, harrowing and unbearable as further incentive.  In retrospect, I completely agree: Jerk—playing through Saturday—is most certainly unbearable, but not because of the powerful message. The title Jerk has multiple meanings, and in part it refers to the captive audience who are imprisoned in the bright lights of the show, though luckily it only lasts for 60 minutes. Tick tock.

Jerk is the not-so-heartwarming tale of Texas serial killer Dean Corll, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 27 teenage boys in the early 1970s. He was assisted in his murderous rampage by two young men, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks. Jerk is based upon this true story but takes off from there in a text based upon writer Dennis Cooper’s short story, who has also written the script. The premise is that Brooks is in prison and enacting the tale with glove puppets to a psychology class, a tale-within-a-tale.

The actor in this one-man show is Jonathan Capdevielle. This is the fourth collaboration between the director, Gisele Vienne, a choreographer and visual artist, and Cooper, who’s been described as a “master of transgressive literature” and a writer who “smears his brains across the page.” His work deals with gay sex, often with hot teenagers, violence and drug-taking accomplished with minimal plotting and character development. Cooper is part of a West Coast based experimental writing movement that finds freedom in fetishizing the unspeakable—sex/murder, worship/torture, obsession/indifference. Cooper’s writing is much more effective on the page. It’s disappointing the production doesn’t do it justice — but of course, since Cooper is one of the creators of the show, he has no one to blame but himself.

Jerk has been called brutal. I call it dull. There was never a point I felt any connection or interest in what was happening on stage, and it was not the fault of the puppets. I happen to adore puppets, Muppets, marionettes, and all creatures manipulated onstage by human beings. The tradition of hand puppetry is to enact subversive, ribald or controversial material on stage, which is what makes Grand Guignol and Punch and Judy shows so entertaining.

Capdevielle is handsome and has a heavy French accent, which could be sexy in the right circumstances. Unfortunately, his performance with the hand puppets is self-conscious and at times he giggles at the absurdity of it all. Jerk was originally performed on Radio France in 2007, which is not surprising since the actor is seated on the stage throughout the production. During the second act, there is no action whatsoever, since the puppets have all “died.” Capdevielle uses his voice like a ventriloquist, not moving his lips. Ever overhear a little kid imitating the sounds of planes, cars, and war?  The second act is a lot like that.

Ironically, the week before the show, I was telling my friend I didn’t mind seeing theater, no matter how bad it was. Was I the jerk for going to see Jerk? My friend’s comment later was succinct:  “Perhaps a whimpering European with snuggle puppets doesn’t best convey the forbidden pleasures of eviscerating very young men.” She was able to sneak out during the first act, which lasts for half an hour.

All this is not to say I don’t support PS 122 and its willingness to go out on limb. You don’t get to shows like this every day. COIL features 14 different shows altogether and the opportunity to see two or three shows a day can be fun. Sometimes, you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. I met with Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of P.S. 122, who told me he heard about Jerk when it was playing in Seattle at On The Boards. “The director there called me and said, ‘This show is completely insane and I think I’m going to lose my job over it.’” Gantner extols the “unremitting brutality and sickness” which is told “without apology and without empathy.” He mentioned that during the first performance, a few audience members walked out and one man fainted.

I have no problem with grisly material presented daringly, but hearing the tale of the murder sprees from the puppets trivializes the action and makes it less real, potentially an interesting device, but here it just seems less immediate, less visceral. The director, Gisele Vienne, who is French and very charming, told me, “We need to face horrible things, it’s healthier.” I agree with her sentiment, but in Jerk the horror is trivialized by the absurdity of the glove puppets and an actor who was unable to make me care.

As I walked down East 9th Street after the play, I was oh so grateful for being alive and not seated in the small black box of the theatre, free from the world of cruel serial killer puppets.

– Gerry Visco

I'm FABULOUS! I sleep four hours a night and I like to dance. I never stop talking. I have a radio show and I write a weekly column for NY Press's Bash Compactor, covering events, parties, and the arts. Maybe YOU. I try to swim every day and do yoga. My favorite word is "motherfucker."

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