It may sound like a grisly horror fest, but Kevin Augustine's dance/puppet show Body Concert, performed as part of La MaMa's Puppet Festival, is actually a gentle meditation on the human body, the interconnectedness of our separate parts, and the intertwining of life with death. Augustine's rubber-foam puppets are scientifically realistic, which might be disturbing if not for the way this master puppeteer handles them. Carefully choreographed, his movements are always tender. A skinless arm, displaying veins, muscles, and a bit of bone, feelingly slides over a leg. A skull gazes upward at falling snow. Augustine himself cradles a skeletal baby and softly puts it to bed, tucking a blanket over its bony shoulders.
It's whimsical, though perhaps darkly so, like a strange dream or a child's morbid imagination. And despite there being no dialogue or linear plot, it's full of delightful surprises, such as when two lids pull apart to reveal a gigantic eyeball. Later, an arm and a leg cast aside their tendons to meet bone to bone. Each scene feels like a movement in a larger symphony, a series of poignant images that flicker amid fog and fadeouts. Together, they present one evocative whole, though perhaps it's less a whole than a longing for wholeness.
Single-handedly pulling off this phantasmagoric puppet show is Kevin Augustine, founder, director, and performer of Lone Wolf Tribe (the tribe consists of Augustine and his puppets, the latter repurposed from old couch cushions). As the show begins, he emerges nearly naked from beneath a blanket, and after a brief exploration of his own body, takes up each puppet in turn. Demonstrating true artistic vulnerability, he moves like a newborn creature (having just seen Worlds Fair Inn, I couldn't help making a few Frankenstein comparisons), and his deliberate, almost awkward grace simply draws more attention to the star of this show: the human body.
At this point, you may be wondering how the audience reacted to seeing dismembered body parts glide around onstage. While I can't speak for my fellow audience members, I felt we were all bound together under the spell of Augustine's uncanny puppetry. Soft laughter, signaling not raucous comedy but gentle delight, greeted much of the show. And yes, quiet groans followed the more gruesome elements, but even these had a touch of enjoyment to them.
At the end of the day, the plaintive beauty of Body Concert has to be seen to be believed. While it's hard to imagine anything more gruesome than an entire puppet show about skeletons and severed limbs, this gem of a show turns expectations and preconceived notions on their heads. Attempting a new kind of storytelling, it calls attention to things we take for granted every day, as if to set up each separate body part as an artistic masterpiece. In doing so, it asks, and allows us, to see the body as never before, and with that comes a new appreciation for the haunting, wistful loveliness of life and death.
Body Concert runs October 7th - 10th at La MaMa. For tickets and more info, see below: