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"One, two, three, four! We don't want to wash the floor!" shouts a wild-eyed stilt-walker with a distorted face and a mop.
"Five, six, seven, eight! You should wash your own plate!" hollers a disgruntled imp waving a placard at passing cars on Bryant Street.
I try not to make eye contact with the hired help, who are on strike less than half an hour after the grand opening of Chez Pantalone, the arbiter elegantiae among Mission District puppet-supper clubs, but social conscience (and the mendacious glint in the owner's eye) gets the better of me.
"What are your complaints?" I ask the three frightful scrub boys standing on my left with mismatched socks, tattered sleeves, and terribly, terribly long noses.
"There are too many plates," laments one.
"There are too many floors," says another.
"He feeds us sock puppets!" cries a third, pointing at the corpulent form of Mssr. Pantalone, who stands ensconced in a pinstriped suit of the richest cabernet hue. "We can't eat sock puppets all of the time."
"These puppets," explains Mssr. Pantalone, stepping out of the doorway to stand between me and the picketing horde, "they are a delicacy. Delicious puppets. You will see. Please, please, pay no attention to these, ahem, men. Your table is waiting. Please, right this way."
Arranged by the CELLSpace Puppet Cluster, and as advertised by last year's patrons of Funky Puppet Supper, Chez Pantalone is at the fine-dining forefront of "warehouse chic." Mismatched couches and chairs complement wood-planked floors and high, raftered ceilings, and, although red tablecloths, flickering candlelight, and delicate arrangements of fall flowers and apples imply elegance, some of the place settings are laid out on old trunks, end tables, and large stools, conjuring memories of those longed-for dinners at your crazy Aunt Millie's house. As the only other customer in the house says, it's magical.
Dr. Abacus, the Pantalone house band, offers a mellifluous shower of old-timey, slightly feral-minded jazz, but there's little opportunity to enjoy the music before Bregella, the oddball maitre d', bustles me upstairs and over a wooden bridge.
Here, in the attic loft, bent over tables strewn with piles of buttons, glitter, hot glue guns, pipe cleaners, ribbons, yarn, and tinsel, are the evening's patrons, a collection of keenly dressed men and women with their hands shoved inside old socks, talking to each other in cartoon voices. Perfunctorily, I select a sock and begin to apply buttons, in the hope of creating a big-eyed giraffe with a soft voice, glittery eyelashes, and slender tongue. Sadly, form often dictates function, and my sock becomes a Parisian sewer rat named Maurice with buckteeth and a slavering lisp. Half an hour later, I am, like the others, so engrossed in puppet conversation that I am hardly able to pause for hors d'oeuvres -- organic tomatoes stuffed with couscous (woefully underseasoned) and apple slices drizzled with tahini-maple syrup -- that come by on platters. Only when a blatantly overdressed woman begins complaining do I remember my real job. I watch as another patron gently explains to the woman that, at Chez Pantalone, one must make puppets in order to ask for one's food. Soon, after the woman burns herself with the hot glue gun, I decide to take my seat.
Of course, Miss Fancy, whose name is Silvia, sits at my table and begins complaining loudly about the lack of hors d'oeuvres and bread. She demands water, which is spilled across her lap by a flustered joker named Arlequino. Desperate for more floor help, Zani, the head busboy, finds some scabs out back who are willing to work for the evening. The grimacing, snarling scab-buffoons enter the restaurant with lumpy butts, pointy heads, and murderous looks in their eyes. They like Silvia, and her purse.
Luckily, the Fou Fou Ha! Dancers perform a delightful clown cancan, and the golden curry soup -- a strident blend of organic carrots, squash, and spices -- almost makes up for a New Age trapeze act that never quite gets off the ground. Luckier still, the plunger-happy buffoon busboys carry off my tetchy dinner companion during the main course. Amid the onerous tamale pie, made from organic black turtle beans and masa, and the bracing cabbage salad with cumin-seed dressing, a love affair emerges between the head chef, Capitano, and Pantalone's daughter, Isabella, whose hand is promised to a goblin-headed restaurant chain investor. Contrary to Pantalone's wishes, Isabella defends Capitano's use of organic foodstuff against the goblin, who favors genetically modified fare. Unfortunately, the food cannot speak for itself, and dessert is better left to the wonderful puppetry of Bob Hartman. Using simple stick puppets, Hartman creates a humorous race between a tortoise and a hare, and a harrowing battle between an ugly duckling and a cobra, but it's his wolf -- a fast-talking, ear-cocking, tail-wagging, smartass in tie and suspenders -- that makes technology (computer animation or genetic engineering) seem pointless.
By the time Capitano and Isabella are united and Silvia is served on a giant platter with an apple in her mouth, everyone -- puppet, buffoon, patron, busboy, and serving clown -- is in the mood to celebrate. Mssr. Pantalone strikes up the band, and the crowd, with sock puppets and children in tow, frolics across the dance floor, leaving me to contemplate the tasteful tedium of future dining experiences.