Self-billed as "Seattle's most creative, most courageous, and most disturbing puppeteers," Monkey Wrench Puppet Lab has made a name for itself with sick-and-twisted hits
like Frankenocchio and the ongoing Drunk Puppet Nite. With its latest production—UFO: The Puppet Show—the Monkey Wrench gang aims for a full-length sci-fi puppet epic (there's an intermission and everything). But expectations of, say, a fact-based Roswell exposé are quickly smashed by the pulled-from-their-drunken-asses fantasia on display, in which meddling aliens are revealed as the secret force behind such previously disparate phenomena as the Third Reich, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Jackson.
Monkey Wrench's puppetry (hand, shadow, other) is played out on a series of small platforms and screens too far from the audience, rendering some of the smaller bits inscrutable and occasionally leading to the puppets' upstaging by their full-sized, black-body-stockinged manipulators. But with the "sound effects and affectation" provided by onstage synth-master Chadwick Dahlquist and the ramshackle scrappiness that is Monkey Wrench's stock-in-trade, UFO occasionally takes flight as a proudly ludicrous monstrosity.
However, just as often, things land with a splat. Most of these splats can be attributed to Monkey Wrench's vaunted sick-and-twistedness, which is occasionally inspired: the deathbed delivery of Hitler's love child was impressive, and an early Jackson scene—in which young Michael's pedophilia is presented as the reason his father beat him, rather than a fucked-up by-product of the abuse—was breathtakingly wrong.
But often the in-your-face wrongness went nowhere, or at least nowhere I wanted to go—most notably in the few unfortunate instances when the puppeteers tried race-based shock. Good racist comedy incriminates the teller. Without the grit of self-incrimination, Monkey Wrench's offerings were just dumb racist bullshit. May the cricket sounds that greeted the two most glaring examples—one crack about blacks and menthol cigarettes, another about a new Civil War where "the darkies lose"—prove instructive.