Animal Cruelty: Down-and-Dirty Noir with Puppets
It can't be easy to imbue a chicken-shaped piece of cardboard on a stick with a personality. Scot Augustson, the talent behind Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes, doesn't aim for "expressive" in his puppetry: Though Chicken Jenny is onstage for most of Animal Cruelty, she doesn't move all that much, unless she's being chased by another more-menacing-shaped hunk of cardboard on a stick. So most of the credit for Chicken Jenny's liveliness goes to Stephen Hando, one of the four stellar voice actors sitting onstage during Animal Cruelty, reading their lines into microphones like an old-timey radio play. Hando's Chicken Jenny acts like a Southern lady, but she's really a world-weary dame with unmet wants and carnal needs who can't shake her rotten past, no matter how hard she tries.
Noir parodies have been done to death, but when you find a rare noir-fueled comedy that works, it's as delicious and welcome a surprise as finding a $20 bill in a $5 thrift-store jacket. Augustson and Hando's Chicken Jenny makes the perfect central character for a down-and-dirty noir. Animal Cruelty ignores the obvious jokes—no hard-bitten private eyes here, no bad voice-overs—and instead delivers a story about a bunch of shady people (or animals) with questionable motivations bumping into each other in increasingly more desperate situations. Which means it's a noir parody that actually respects and follows the conventions of the genre it's mocking.
When we first meet Chicken Jenny, she's trapped in an abusive relationship with a loser. She pursues an affair with the first halfway-decent man to come along (the human/chicken sex is depicted in as much hilariously graphic detail as a silhouette puppet show can possibly muster), and soon she's on trial for murder. The story is peppered liberally with flashbacks that are portrayed on smaller screens to the side of the main stage, and singer Shawnmarie Stanton and bassist Kathie Whitehall provide musical interludes in the form of torch songs and snappy vacation-spot theme music for a seedy sex-tourist destination called Tipperando.
Every character Chicken Jenny meets in her escape from justice, including a defrocked-priest-turned-hobo and a lamb rent boy named Two Shakes, seems to have a corpse somewhere in the recent past. Everyone has a lot of sex. ("Behind that door," someone explains in a flashback, "pleasure was being taken like a mussel sucked from its shell.") Characters fall in love and then find themselves in dire trouble. ("Love ain't nothin' but a barbed-wire dress," Chicken Jenny bitterly observes.) And in the middle of all the sex and murder, Augustson manages to squeeze in arson, a topless-mermaid variety show, a train wreck, an earnest discussion about whether the sound of a foghorn could be more accurately described as lonely or melancholy, and a whole bunch of anal sex jokes. Honestly, could you ask for anything more out of a night of theater?