JUG-BABY: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY is full of surprises. They’re not entirely central to the plot, but still, I don’t want to say too much, because the reveals are responsible for much of the play’s charm, and I’d hate to ruin anyone’s delight. Let’s just say it’s a white-hot ninety minute burst of a show, brought to us by playwright/director/solo puppeteer/narrator C. Kennedy (who also wrote the book it’s based on).
One of the biggest surprises that I do feel comfortable talking about is how funny it is. Like, the program opens with a quote from Pablo Neruda’s “The Song of Despair,” but then one of the first things we see when the show opens is a pair of substance-addled puppets failing miserably at coitus interruptus. That leads to the unwanted birth of our title character, a 100% regular baby, whose previously-mentioned addled parents decide to make it into a freak by stuffing it into a jar (for its own good!). Things go downhill for Jug-Baby from there, and all of this is played for well-earned laughs. Yet the show, shot through as it is with neglect, abuse, and betrayal, has no bile to spew – a sharp bite, to be sure, but no bitterness.
A lot of this has to do with Kennedy’s stance as a director. She manages to keep her feet planted in two different realities without compromising either. The show is ridiculously funny, but its main goal is not to entertain. It tackles Big Personal Ideas without wrapping itself in layers of airless abstraction and without becoming some giant puppet-based selfie. And, for something labeled as autobiography, there is precious little purchase for an audience who wants to know what relationships are supposed to stand for what. Often, with this kind of roman-a-clef-type story, an author is tempted to make a sort of nineteenth-century editorial cartoon out of the proceedings, putting underlined labels on all the important symbols. While this is an intensely personal origin story, we don’t get a legend to decipher anything.
Instead, the play moves at its own speed and finds its own shape to take. This is a great strength, but it does have its limits. Without the scaffolding of a traditional three-act structure, the show resembles Jug-Baby in a way – while all the parts are there, they don’t always pop up where expected. The story’s disjointedness lends a strange sagginess to the last third.
Speaking of double-edged strengths, Kennedy’s exuberant performances as a puppeteer highlights one other downside. She is breathes so much life into these strange puppets that her human narrator self comes across as bloodless in comparison. The other characters are consistently drawn with thick distinct lines, so when the narrator’s poetic voice veers into purple prose territory, it really stands out. When J-B’s story gets especially shitty, instead of breathing deep and bearing through the more painful moments, the narrator retreats into wordplay or gesture. We need something inscrutably specific from her as narrator – malevolence maybe, or cheerful indifference, or the pink hurt of a freshly descabbed wound. What we get is closer to the hidden gritted teeth and forced smile of a friend who insists everything is fine when it clearly isn’t. The narrator doesn’t need to fling the worst emotions into the crowd, but she cannot simply absorb them.
That said, this is a captivating show, and every single part of it works to get us to the final scene, and for that we should be grateful. There is magic and wonder in the world, and not the cheap kind from childhood fairy tales, but the hard earned kind from adults who speak in their own true voices and dare to tell us how we’re all put together. [Yell Gallery, 2111 E Susquehanna Avenue] November 14, 2014 (and various dates elsewhere, see below). transmissionstheatre.weebly.com.
JUG BABY dates:
November 2, 2014
The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street
November 6, 2014
The Chateau, 1414 Castle Avenue
November 14, 2014
Yell Gallery, 2111 E Susquehanna Avenue
November 17, 2014
The Odditorium, 1045 Haywood Road (Ashville, NC)
November 19-23, 2014
Indywood Cinema, 628 Elysian Fields Avenue (New Orleans, LA)