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Pulling Strings: Puppet Slam vs. Burlesque on Feb. 16

By Pete Zamplas- Puppetry and burlesque converge Feb. 16 in Asheville, in a fun competition between the two performance art forms.

Prince, at right, drops in on Johnny Cash at left and Joey Ramone in Rock and Roll Odyssey at Asheville Fringe. Keith Shubert plans another routine, for the show Feb. 16 in Sly Grog Lounge.

The Wham, Bam! Puppet Slam vs. the Geektastic Nerd-lesque Revue is in the Sly Grog Lounge at 271 Haywood St., right by Patton Avenue. The show is 7:30 p.m. that Saturday. Tickets are $15 at the door for the general public. There are adult themes.

The host of each of the two groups is Queen April for burlesque, and Keith Shubert as Toybox the Gothic Cartoon Witch. Both are based in Asheville. Word is April is apt to say how creepy Toybox is, as they exchange barbs.

Puppeteer and burlesque dancers, comic and other variety show performers have joined forces taking turns on stage. This time, they will playfully try to outdo each other for audience attention and applause.

Pulling strings is common for both troupes. Puppeteers do so to move their puppets about. Burlesque dancers pull strings to shed garments. As law requires, they retain tassels and panties in the end. In both of these artistic genres, how they handle strings is artful and often playful.

A year ago, the puppet slam in February featured locally-based Shubert, Edwin Acosta Salas, Ben Brill and Rigel Pawlak and regional acts such as Lyon Hill, Qate Bean, and Carole D’Agostino.

Dancers of Geektastic and other local burlesque include Loretta Hoffman, Roxie Rose Lemoan, Neesa Lynn, Dixie Daggers, Ransom Rose, and Katarina Reuter among many others.

This is a busy month for such dancers. Upcoming burlesque shows include Sultry Sirens on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 9 p.m in 27 Club, Valentease Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. in The Block Off Biltmore, Anti-Valentine Feb. 14 at 10 p.m. in The Grey Eagle, Sultry Sirens in Heratbreakers Ball Feb. 15 in The Artisan of Flat Rock, and Black Garter Revue in Sly Grog Feb. 23.

Toy Trade Show
The “puppet-esque” square-off on Feb. 16 is also an after-party for those who go to Assembly Required: The Asheville Designer Toy Expo. The Southeastern trade show for toymakers and collectors is Feb. 16-17, at Highland Brewing Co. at 12 Old Charlotte Hwy. in Asheville.

This trade show is open to the public. Toys will be for sale. This is believed to be the first toy designer expo held in Asheville. Tickets are $5 each, with youths younger than 10 admitted for free.

The expo draws “designer, bootleg (action figure) and toy artists from around the country” who are “titans in the designer toy expo subculture,” according to the event’s website. Designer toys are “lowbrow pop art” such as “urban vinyl” inspired by comics, street art, toys and tattooing.

Variations include “custom figure” with a design typically hand-painted, “plush” toys made mostly or fully of fabric and other materials of stuffed animals, “kitbash” assembled from model kit partse, resin synthetic two-part liquid compound, “Sofubi” soft vinyl such as vintage Godzilla toys, and Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC)/vinyl soft plastic such as for Barbie dolls. PVC is more malleable and detailed than hard plastic Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), which is injected into molds instead of poured.

Expo sponsors are Unboxing Asheville, Morgan’s Comics, ZaPow Gallery, Appalachian Pinball Museum in Hendersonville, and 103.3 FM. (See assembly-required.net for more info.)
ZaPow at 250 Coxe Ave. will open its month-long Assembly Required exhibit on Friday, Feb. 15, 7-9 p.m.
At puppet slams, puppets hand-crafted by performers are usually for sale.

‘Static’; ‘Odyssey’
Both April and Shubert are fresh off of Fringe Festival performances. Each was in an act among five up for the festival’s honor as most hilarious. She was in the Down with Pants troupe’s tragic comedy play “Static Channel,” on switching TV channels to see various sad and unusual topics.

Shubert and Michael Woodward teamed for the public’s online choice for most bizarre (“Fringiest”) for Toybox Theatre’s Rock and Roll Odyssey, and the funniest honor — which Shubert won for his puppetry last year as well. Yuhas & Co. Dancers of Columbia, S.C. won the overall fan favorite award, for the second year in a row.
R&R Odyssey was one of Shubert’s best-received acts ever.

The crowd laughed upon seeing marionettes of a dozen deceased rock stars. “Dead rock stars who don’t know they are dead go on a mystical quest for enlightenment,” Shubert explained. Main voyagers are Joey Ramone of the Ramones punk band, and country great Johnny Cash. They ride in a pink Cadillac and eventually reach the “Dark Side of the Moon,” in search for the King of Rock and Roll.

They encounter such deceased rock legends as Elvis, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, reclusive Syd Barrett who was Pink Floyd’s original (in ‘65-68) lead singer and guitarist, and Amy Winehouse who died from alcohol intoxication in 2011 at age 27.

The image of Prince is especially crisp. There is a hilarious parody of Michael Jackson, and surprise timings and circumstances of many figures.

This was among Fringe acts making a world premiere. The two puppeteers managed a dress rehearsal in constricted space, ahead of performing on Magnetic 375’s full stage.

They split character voices. Chicago native Shubert was consistent in a New Jersey accent for Ramone, and did a convincing low-toned Johnny Cash. Woodward, from Banner Elk, was very believable as various British rockers. They studied the dead rock stars’ voices, to approximate them.

Shubert made the figures over weeks and in various shapes and sizes. Many are two-dimensional. Others are 3D, such as of Elvis, Ramone and Winehouse.

Distinctive in most of Shubert’s puppets and marionettes is most have a thick metal rod or strong wire coming down through the head. This is central to the Czech style of puppetry he deploys. Most marionettes do not have such a rod. Shubert notes ie enables him to use merely one hand per puppet, and thus control two puppets at once as they interact on stage. Typically, a T-shaped frame with strings across it enables moving the head, body, arms and legs.

Fringe Co-director Jim Julien has performed in puppet slams. He said of the Czech style that typically a control lever is atop the wire that comes out of the puppet’s head or back of the body. “Its hands and legs move up and down. You can manipulate that with one or two hands. It’s a modified marionette, with fewer strings and less control.”

Julien noted, “Keith keeps it simple. So the marionette’s strings do not cross another string, and get tangled. If that happens, you lose control of the limbs. Puppets may look simple on stage. But the engineering is elaborate.”
Hmm, Shubert must have “pulled strings” to earn his way to newly becoming the 82-year-old Puppeteers of America’s artistic director for its national festival this year in Minneapolis, Mn. Shubert brought the Southeast Regional Festival to Asheville and Warren Wilson College last summer. (An intro class was not Ventriloquism for Dummies.) He said that festival was well received, and he hopes to land the next one in 2020.

photo by Pete Zamplas

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