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Theater Review - Groovy ghoulies

Halloween puppets to leave you hanging

Like victims of a tiny gallows, dozens of puppets — including ghosts, witches and circus performers — dangle overhead, just out of arm's reach, at a corner of the Center for Puppetry Arts' workshop. For such a funny yet ghoulish sight, the hanged puppets go easily overlooked in the open, brightly lit space that otherwise looks like a conventional woodshop.

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Located next to the Center for Puppetry Arts' parking lot, the freestanding workshop serves as a labor-intensive playground for two of Atlanta's most vivid imaginations. Currently, Jon Ludwig and Jason von Hinezmeyer spend most of their days like matched Dr. Frankensteins, armed with hammers and glue guns, to give life to their creations for the Center's new Halloween show, The Ghastly Dreadfuls' Compendium of Graveyard Tales and Other Curiosities.

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As the Center's associate artistic director, Ludwig has been an Atlanta puppetry mainstay for more than 20 years, earning national acclaim for such original, grown-up shows as Frankenstein at the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. A more recent addition, Hinezmeyer joined the center five years ago and quickly became a distinctive talent, crafting original shows like Principia Discordia at Dad's Garage last year. (Until this year, he went by the name "Jason Hines," but after marrying the Center's production stage manager Kristen Meyer, the newlyweds combined their names to make "von Hinezmeyer.")

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Despite their differences in age and experience, Ludwig and von Hinezmeyer's relationship proves more equitable than "sorcerer" and "apprentice."

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"He's the idea man, I'm the expediter," Ludwig says. "A few years ago we were talking, and Jason said, 'You know, if Leonardo Da Vinci's machines worked, he'd be like Batman.' And I was like, 'Boing! That's a play right there!" The pair's first major collaboration, 2003's Avanti, Da Vinci: The Secret Adventures of Leonardo Da Vinci, brought the notion to glorious, uproarious life.

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In anticipation of the Center's tradition of original Halloween shows, von Hinezmeyer suggested that for 2006, they shift from the frat-party vibe of The Spooky Puppet Horror Show and the more gothic Something Wicked, and simply tell stories. Partly inspired by the morbid wit of Edward Gorey, The Ghastly Dreadfuls features both original tales and adaptations of works from W.W. Jacobs (author of "The Monkey's Paw") and others.

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They're striving to balance horror and humor, says Ludwig, who adds, "We don't have any gouts of blood spraying the audience, although I've done that before. Oceans of blood."

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Each of the evening's stories is told by a different member of the seven-piece, undead band called the "Ghastly Dreadfuls" (all costumed from the period in which they died). In between, they rock out with spooky-themed tunes like "Zombie Jamboree" and "Beware the Blob!"

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"I think puppets and the supernatural go hand-in-hand. It's easy to get macabre with them," von Hinezmeyer says.

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"There's a creepiness to puppets. Whenever something's coming to life, there's always something a little Re-Animator about it," Ludwig says.

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With seven stories in an all-original show, the puppeteers' craftsmen have spent months constructing up to 100 puppets all from scratch for the show, including "trick" puppets that can split into little pieces or shift their grip on a trapeze from hands to feet. Ludwig and von Hinezmeyer say that most of their creative interplay occurs in the shop, whether they're working on the stars of their original shows or commissions. They joke whether "collaborative" or "combative" better describes their working relationship, but during our interview they're both easygoing, casually finishing each other's sentences.

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As directors, designers, puppeteers and musical performers in Ghastly Dreadfuls, the pair boasts hands-on involvement with nearly every aspect of the show. "Actors don't physically have to nail and glue stuff together," Ludwig says.

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"But we have to be able to do all that internal character-building, too," von Hinezmeyer says. "I really enjoy building the entire show, not just the puppets, but the sets and everything else. When the show works, I'm really happy."