"Puppets are very popular right now," says "Daniel Ought," an itinerant who acquires loose coins at the corner of Geary and Shannon with the help of a yellow-duck hand puppet named Wibble. Although not frequently asked for his opinions, Ought is a keen observer of cultural trends.
One look at the entertainment calendars from the last four months reveals the truth of his declaration.
Since the beginning of the year, this town has seen numerous puppet bands, puppet plays, puppet workshops, and puppet ballets, incorporating Jewish, Balinese, and Vietnamese puppets, as well as puppets on water, puppets on strings, and life-size, finger-size, shadow, and computer-generated puppets.
Hell, there's even a cop who carries a puppet on his beat.
Last year, the trend was toward clowns, but the lure of greasepaint has faded, the black-velvet portrait of John Wayne Gacy has slipped behind the couch, and our friends have traded in Shakes the Clown for The Muppet Movie.
But why are we a puppet-crazy town?
"Most of the time, puppets make people smile," offers Ought.
Then, thinking about the real allure of puppets, he adds this: "And they don't have to look at the person next to it."
In the underground theater of City Cabaret, Chinese lanterns illuminate deep red carpet and stiff green vinyl tablecloths. Red stage curtains made of painted plywood frame a floor-level stage strewn with large old traveling trunks. The house lights are dim. The ceiling is low, a bit too low for so much red. Three bright, cartoonish murals representing Chinatown, North Beach, and the Castro District lighten the atmosphere, but become unsettling under scrutiny; all the human figures in them are footless. A few torsos dangle in midair.
The perfect environment for a puppet, run amok.
A small somber crowd files in. Someone mentions "highly unusual" puppets, but the title of this show, Once Vaudeville, seems harmless enough. Frank Oz -- the voice behind every beloved Muppet -- takes a seat in the front row. I am told that when angry, he sounds just like Fozzie Bear. This is somehow comforting, and thoughts of murderous ventriloquist dummies begin to fade.
But not for long. The room darkens. Watery sounds fill the space: Waves crash against cliff faces. Surf laps against pilings. A round head covered with mangy green hair emerges from the center of a black curtain at the back of the stage. An infant screams over the water sounds. The recorded cry continues as a clown appears -- a wild-eyed, slobber-mouthed clown left over from a time when clowns were important and beloved.
An alarm sounds.
The clown, Philadelphia puppeteer Kevin Augustine, does a drunken cartwheel and lands leering at the crowd. He struggles with language and emotion, trying to get both under control.
"Sto-ry," he stammers wetly. "Sto-ry-time." He grins and the whites of his eyes glisten with madness. He talks to his hands, his head lolling. "Old man. His story. My story."
When the lights return, the old man is there, a life-size puppet with a sunken face and hollow, dim eyes. The puppet and the clown share the same spindly legs, but the clown remains a separate entity; the two connected beings interact. The clown scowls at the old man as the puppet struggles for breath. The old man's tired voice emanates from the clown's greasy smear.
The clown and puppet speak of vaudeville, of family entertainment, of the days when the Matty and Jimmy Show was tops.
The old man is Matty. Matty can't remember the punch lines to the old act anymore, and the clown relishes his pain. There are flashbacks, inhabited by puppets and human characters, all manipulated or played by Augustine, that tell a tale of sorrow:
A young, robust Matty -- another life-size puppet with glistening eyes -- and his dummy, Jimmy, headline the Palace for the first time, gaining fans and autographs. Then Jimmy, tired of one-line gags and life on the road, pricks Matty's conscience, reminding him of his one true love, his ballerina wife and their son, Matty Jr., who are waiting at home. But Matty chooses the spotlight over love. What follows is a slow, painful descent into obscurity, loneliness, and convalescent homes.
Throughout the unfolding of the tale, the clown -- Matty Jr.'s tormented ego -- has wrenching, venomous fits. And by the time a soft-eyed, red-cheeked, human Matty Jr. -- also played by Augustine -- takes the stage to confront the now rotting Jimmy-dummy, the crowd has been through the wringer.
"I came for cool-looking puppets," says Gregory Shale, a 29-year-old sound man who, ironically, spends most of the year on the road. "I thought it was going to be something along the lines of The Lion King for adults. I didn't know they were heavy puppets."
At the end of the show, Shale, who is clearly moved, waits around so he can ask Augustine why he chose puppets as a way to tell his story.
"I was getting a little lonely up there onstage," says Augustine, making it clear that he and Ought, the Geary panhandler, have more in common than one might think.
Once Vaudeville continues at City Cabaret through April 18; call 931-9707.
By Silke Tudor