The Wife of Puccio, adapted from Boccaccio's Decameron, is similarly goofy, if a tad more coherent. Isabetta cannot get her husband, the elderly, pious Puccio, to fulfill her carnal needs. A traveling monk, noticing her disheveled ardor, convinces Puccio that he can ensure his entry into heaven if he ties himself to a cross on the roof all night. Whereupon the monk ministers to Isabetta, the house shakes with her orgasm, and Puccio takes it for the joyous spirit of the Lord.

The silly story lines -- cobbled together with clever yet often overexpository couplets -- are only a skeleton upon which to hang the real spectacle: Vile Jelly's insane, endearing formal vision. Kanievsky's elegant yet ravaged rod puppets came to uncanny animation with the slightest shiver or gesture; under the lights the plaster and fabric emanated the disturbing charisma of good actors. Given the prurient script, however, Kanievsky could have exploited her puppets for more laughs. (The monk's member never rose beneath his robe, for instance.) The music, all composed by Caulfield and sung by the three actors -- Chris Xiques, Andy Cowitt, and Caulfield -- perfectly captured the primitive genius of the high-low art form. With demented, singsong arias -- accompanied by Caulfield on piano -- the all-male trio attacked their melodies with the infectious abandon of children playing make-believe in the basement. Adults rarely pull off such reckless naivete, but Vile Jelly walks a fine line between meticulous virtuosity and sophomoric glee, classical form and anarchistic narrative. In order to grow, the troupe'll need to explore and evolve the shrunken bizarre world they have discovered. Let's only hope they do so without ruining its rough and vile beauty.

-- Carol Lloyd

Parking Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Jennifer Epps. Starring Marin Van Young, Dylan Kussmann, Nahid Varjavand, Kevin Karrick, and Michael Storm. Puppets designed by Michael Frassinelli. Presented by Shotgun Players at Mosswood Park, Broadway & MacArthur in Oakland, Aug. 9 to 17, and afterward at John Hinkel Park, on Sommerset east of Arlington in Berkeley, Aug. 23 to 31. Call (510) 655-0813.

Any theater troupe trying to do Shakespeare in the park has to risk being reduced by children, dogs, traffic, and wind to looking like a bunch of random weirdos mouthing archaic lines. The Shotgun Players have gotten around that problem, mostly, by choosing a play that lets them use puppets. Their version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a papier-mache fantasy of fairies that look like animals. The cast wears no costumes, so the opening scenes fall back on pure dialogue to introduce the story, which doesn't always translate in the park. While Hermia gets formally condemned to an unwanted marriage to Demetrius, and flees into the woods around Athens to elope with her lover, Lysander, the wind carries away some crucial lines, kids act restless, and a dog runs onto the stage.

But the show improves when the puppets come on. Oberon and Titania look like male and female cats, life-size puppets attached to Kevin Karrick and Karra Tsiaperas; the attending fairies are smaller animals, including a snouted rodent with horns and a bird in a livery costume; for some reason Puck looks like a boar, and maybe the best way to describe Peaseblossom is to say he doesn't look unlike a blue guinea pig with scales.

The heart of A Midsummer Night's Dream goes roughly like this: Puck has been ordered as a joke by the Fairy King Oberon to anoint his wife, Titania, with a potion that will make her fall in love with the first person she sees. Puck touches her with the potion and then changes the head of a stray actor named Bottom into the head of an ass, and lets Titania fall in love with him. Lysander and Demetrius, sleeping in the woods, also get touched by the potion, and fall in love with Demetrius' ex-girlfriend Helena. This is inconvenient for Hermia, who's trying to elope with Lysander.

The Shotgun Players are a young crew, so the show works best when they're playful. When Lysander and Hermia bed down for the night, Hermia pulls out a hair dryer but can't find a place in the forest to plug it in. When Helena and Hermia argue, Helena calls her rival a "puppet." Sometimes the actors overextend themselves to be heard, especially Marin Van Young, who forces her lines as Hermia. "Keep word, Lysander: We must starve our sight/ From lovers' food till morrow deep midnight" doesn't need to sound hysterical. When Hermia grows furious, though, Van Young is funny; she seems to enjoy beating up on people. Kevin Karrick, as Theseus and Oberon, has a good sense of the balanced, fairy tale-ish postures he needs as king; and Michael Storm is good in the same way, as Bottom, with a projecting voice that doesn't strain. Maybe the secret to A Midsummer Night's Dream is not to take it too seriously, and Karrick and Storm have the right self-detachment to make their performances dance.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Life's a Beach
Psycho Beach Party. By Charles Busch. Directed by Richard Ginsberg. Starring Jason Scott Buro, Diana Brown, Alison Lustbader, and Flynn De Marco. At the Studio at the Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at Capp), through Aug. 16. Call 861-5079.

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