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THEATER REVIEW

Satire that misses its mark

At REDCAT, puppeteer Paul Zaloom sullies his social commentary with crude gross-out humor.

January 20, 2006|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

In addition to his renown as the wacky scientist on the '90s children's television series "Beakman's World," Paul Zaloom is an Obie Award- and Guggenheim Fellowship-winning puppeteer. If his current project -- a cultural-commentary shadow-puppet show titled "The Mother of All Enemies" -- manages to make a blip on the radar, however, it will be for turning an ancient puppeting tradition into the equivalent of a gross-out movie comedy.

Not exactly the sort of accomplishment he might want to move to the top of his resume.

Zaloom begins his performance at REDCAT with the kind of gag seen nightly on Leno or Letterman: a recitation of bumper stickers, real and imagined, that reflect the zeitgeist. He then steps behind a partition -- a white screen framed by black masking -- to begin his puppet show. Interplay of light and shadow turns flat puppets, manipulated by rods, into moving images. Zaloom narrates, provides character voices and sings, unaccompanied, to supply a sort of soundtrack.

The 54-year-old performer, a longtime member of the social-issue Bread and Puppet Theater, bases the presentation on a Middle Eastern tradition of puppetry named after its central character: Karagoz. Zaloom's version of this madcap fellow -- the equivalent of England's Punch or France's Guignol -- is bearded and potbellied, wearing a fez and curly-toed boots. Zaloom also gives him a faux Middle Eastern accent.

The story begins in Syria, where Karagoz wants nothing more than to kiss and cuddle his goofy-looking, hair-challenged lover, Henry. When one of those kisses manifests itself in a big, blooming heart, however, the authorities -- rendered as a pair of pigs in a cop car -- zoom onto the scene to arrest Karagoz for a sex crime.

In prison, Karagoz is absently rubbing his posterior when, with a whoosh of gas, out pops a genie (sorry, folks, but that's what passes for humor here) who grants him a limited number of wishes. Karagoz thus escapes, only to become the focus of a worldwide manhunt as he passes through Israel, an Al Qaeda terrorist camp in Pakistan (which he mistakes for a summer sleep-away camp), the United States and, after being captured again, the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Karagoz merely wants to find a place where he can live in peace with his lover, raise a family and make a living as an artist. The world frowns on this, however, since Karagoz is a gay Middle Eastern humanist, or, as the title suggests, the mother of all enemies.

Puppet builder Lynn Jeffries supplies the sort of detailed comic constructions that local audiences have come to associate with her designs for such groups as Cornerstone Theater Company. Of particular delight is her rendering of the Statue of Liberty as a leg-showing, high-heel-wearing Tina Turner wannabe.

The program credits Jeffries and director Randee Trabitz with significant assistance in shaping the show, but if that's the case, they've failed in what should have been their primary task: to save Zaloom from himself. He lets this commentary about present-day paranoia, xenophobia and homophobia devolve into little more than a series of crude anatomical jokes. Worse, he lets it become boring.

At 80 minutes, this show feels, oh, about 79 minutes too long.

*

`The Mother of All Enemies'

Where: REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $22

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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