Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Afternoon in Williamsburg: Paping Pop-Up Theatre at Desert Island

Due to the severe cold today, the MGMT concert at the McCarren pool was canceled since the band would have had to wear clothes. The seven-block walk with this wind-chill factor would have been too much for us at our advanced age anyway.

Luckily there was something suitable for all ages a lot closer, at our favorite friendly neighborhood comic book store, the fabulous Desert Island. At 4 p.m. they were hosting a puppet show. Yay! With some real little kids in attendance.

The Pop-Up Theatre show was presented by Paping, the delightful comic zine masterminded by John Mejias, whose art is inspired by his experience as an art teacher at a Bronx elementary school. This was the troupe's inaugural performance of this three-act play, and we are here to tell you it was a triumphant debut.

The puppets here were flat cut-outs of people and animals, often featuring movable limbs - or not - drawn in that highly-patterned way that Mejias has made the trademark of his tales of life around kids in the New York City public schools. Everything went off without a hitch, except when the script called for a hitch.

John (Mr. M) - who, by the way, in real life also organized the famed Paping Soap Box Derby - narrated everything, but the other characters in the autobiographical slice-of-life also spoke their lines in distinct voices of other members of the troupe. Between each act was some appropriately wistful or whimsical musical interlude.

The first act, "The Dog Lost," was a non-shaggy dog tale wherein our art-teacher hero, trying to figure out what to have for lunch at his appointed hour of 10:15 a.m. (too early for pizza since they haven't fired the ovens, too soon for eggs again since he'd just had breakfast two hours before), is confronted with a lost, sick or confused dog and some kids looking toward him - he's a teacher, after all - to do something about the situation.

As the Facebook invitation noted, "While the show contains no curses, nudity or bloodshed, children are in danger of finding out that public school teachers don't always know what they are doing."

The second act, "Victimless Crimes," explains what happens when all the parents in the school impress their kids - and sometimes the school secretary - with the repeated admonition, "If anyone hits you, hits them back." (Fortunately, the big kid we punched in the jaw in fourth grade at P.S. 203 had a Quaker mom.) And what happens when a principal tries to control one of those totally wild kids and meets with the boy's large angry grandfather and his two large angry friends. Early retirement was the perfect denouement.

The piece de resistance, the third act tour de force (we saw Sen. John Kerry on TV today so that must explain the French) "Where Theres Smoke Theres Smoke" - we might have been too nearsighted to see any apostrophes in the jaunty title card - features a mysterious P.A. announcement, a "not too bad, not too good, fun art class," a fire drill, a hysterical first-grader with a fish stick in his mouth, plus boys on a roof pelting the school's students (and us, the audience, with eggs.

Oh, and smoke. Lots of smoke. Unexplained smoke. But everything was quite neatly left unexplained throughout the show. The little kids liked it, the hipsters liked it, the few old poople [sic] liked it, the performers' relatives loved it. ("Did you see the arms? I made them," said the woman standing next to us. "Good work, Mom," said the woman behind her.)

Good work, Mr. M and the entire Paping Pop-Up Theatre troupe. We hope you sold a lot of books after the performance. And, as always, good work, Desert Island. People, go buy some comics and books there.

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