Like some strange lovechild born from the charming slapdash style of Monty Python and the technical precision of a stop motion film, “Doom McCoy and the Death Nugget” is a head-scratching experience, but it’s worth every minute.
The performance premiered Feb. 19 at the University Theatre and features puppets designed and handcrafted by students. Actors, dressed head to toe in black with matching cowboy hats, take the audience through the show as omnipresent guides.
The story, billed as a puppet western, follows a ranch hand named Doom McCoy living in Texas as he discovers the peculiar ability to bend space and time while riding his horse through the brush land.
Riding back home after running errands in the town market, Doom finds himself set back in time, repeating the events of his day.
In seeking answers for his cosmic ailment, Doom encounters odd characters like a gambling nemesis, a satanic madam and a Creole snake-oil salesman.
Writer and director Justin Locklear, who is also a Dallas-based actor and graduate of Baylor’s theater program, said the show was inspired by Westerns, puppets and the post-modern audience’s experience.
“I really enjoy puppet shows,” Locklear said. “I think they’re sort of imagination litmus tests where you either buy into it or you disengage, and there’s rarely a lot of in-between. What puppets do is what humans can’t do — to be complete scapegoats. A puppet can be anything you say it is which humans can’t do.”
A puppet can be anything you say it is which humans can’t do.
Locklear’s approach in figuring out what worked for the show was to test responses among the cast and crew.
The result is a show that includes an array of media including live and prerecorded video and dynamic props like some kind of electric saddle, horse masks and miniature sets.
“It’s a way that we give the audience relief,” Locklear said. “We want to give you weird, tangential sort of things including video and sound and incongruous elements because then we can be more active. It allows the audience to be more active.”
The show also features several types of puppets including wood and paper dolls standing about four feet tall and smaller versions of some of the characters.
The actors themselves helped make many of the props including the puppets they handle during the performance.
Student actress Marissa Lopez, an arts and performance freshman, said she was excited when the project started but was under the impression the puppets would already be made.
“It was a little scary because I’m not the most crafty person, but it was really fun,” she said. “I thought that helped to understand the puppet’s motions better.”
When the show begins, the viewer must choose between focusing on the puppets and the actors handling them — translating their movements, voices and emotions.
Stephanie Oustalet, a freshman minoring in arts and performance, said acting through the puppet was the hardest aspect of the show.
“I, as a person, can act, but now, you’re taking this inanimate object and making it act,” she said. “You don’t use expressions; you use its body. In a sense, some people find it absolutely creepy that you’re taking an inanimate object and making it life-like. I mean, they make horror movies about it all the time.”
As the show carries on, the audience notices the actors spend much of their time moving about onstage, pushing set pieces and holding puppets and props.
Connor Spencer, a literary studies senior, said keeping his focus on the puppet throughout the extensive blocking and constant movement was the most challenging part of his performance.
“I’m always exhausted at the end of the show,” Spencer said. “It’s only a one-hour show, but between the fact that you’re physically doing so much with the puppets and the scene work and the fact that you have to have this incredible amount of focus between characters, it’s tiring.”
Still, the cast — most of who have never acted with puppets — agrees the experience has been a positive one.
“I came in not knowing what to expect and everything about it has really exceeded my expectations,” said psychology senior Austin Schmidt. “Justin has really led it in a really fascinating direction.”
The show presents the audience with a significant challenge in trying to overlook the restrictions of the medium, as is often the case with any kind of nonhuman-centered theater experience.
In the beginning, the show teeters on becoming an uncomfortable experience as actors bustle to keep the set active and believable and puppets fight to keep the audience in a state of suspended disbelief.
Locklear said his approach to figure out what worked was to test responses among the cast and crew to find out what worked and what didn’t.
“You get to pry and pick and play the numbers game to see how the audience will respond,” he said.
It soon becomes clear however that the cast is reveling in their self-awareness through script and expression. Ultimately, it makes the whole ordeal delightfully absurd.
“Doom McCoy and the Death Nugget” will continue its run at the University Theatre Jan. 26-28 at 8:00 p.m., and tickets for students are free with a Comet Card.