The devil is in the details

"Mercurius Lumen" challenges our perceptions and our reality.

Greg Corradini

Jabba the Hutt’s grotesqueries never had such fierce competition. At one point in “Mercurius Lumen,” the new production from Puppetry Arts Studio, a huge bullfrog head, looking like a decapitated Hutt, belches. His burp, executed by means of a didgeridoo, garners the audience’s laughter, then mystifies it with its unexplained repetition.

“Mercurius Lumen,” written by puppeteer Dhann Polnau and onstage at the Bedlam Theater, is the first installment of a soon-to-be four-hour epic. The show seems to offer pure images devoid of meaning except for whatever meaning viewers invest in them.

Without a plot, “Mercurius Lumen” is at first glance a wandering, aimless project. The story is structured as a series of skits constructed around the themes of death and rebirth. At the center of the action is an old man (Loren Kellen). Depending on your perspective, he is either confined in hell or insane. As the show progresses, the old man interacts with puppets of all shapes and sizes, but not with humans.

Flying green puppets, trolls, witches, singing baboons and a winged Siberian tiger appear. Polnau also bestows the inhabitants of this universe with strange, guttural grunts, stripping language and dialogue away from the narrative. The primitiveness of the scenes allows the audience’s imagination to create a text.

The old man, for example, is transformed from a human into a puppet in one of the death and rebirth scenes. Now that he’s easier to swallow, a floating fanged head devours him.

A screen appears and the old man’s silhouette travels through the monster’s digestive track. Naturally, the audience finds the absurd humor in this and laughs. But as soon as the old man lands inside the monster’s tummy, animals’ skeletal remains accost him.

Any number of explanations could be attached to this scene. Polnau’s monster might be a capitalist devouring human life in his lustful greed. Or it might simply be a force of nature. No explicit justification is offered, and the sequence is left open for the audience’s interpretation.

There’s plenty more to chew on in this show.

Also at home in the monster’s belly is a naked woman singing unintelligible, but very lilting songs. A five-member ensemble accompanies this scene and others with live music using accordions, violins and gongs.

Inspired by her voice, the skeleton dismembers the old man’s body and allows him to be reborn later in the play.

Like many of the other avant garde works that have found a home at the Bedlam, “Mercurius Lumen” presents both a challenge to the intellect and a delight for the gut. Puppets never lose their magic, even if the effect on the viewer is sometimes blunted by years of submersion in the dull, workaday world. To see a play like this, you must be willing to suspend your disbelief and your inhibitions. When you do that, narrative will cease to exert a stranglehold on your consciousness and a burping frog will mean as much as any epic saga.