Punch-Drunk Puppetry

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By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, March 13, 2008

The puppet that is absolutely not Kevin Spacey (although he is named Kevin, and although he is a dead ringer for the actor) is having it out with his wife in a bar. He has hit that point, the one where consequences no longer matter. She is . . . barking.

It is just one of seven bitingly funny sketches from the Blind Summit Theatre production of "Low Life" -- tales inspired by the poems, short stories and final novel, "Pulp," by Charles Bukowski-- though by no means do booze and antagonism confine themselves to this scene.

After all, it is Bukowski.

Continuing tonight and tomorrow at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, "Low Life" is the brainchild of actor and director Mark Down and designer and puppetmaker Nick Barnes, who co-founded the British-based Blind Summit in 1997 in the Japanese bunraku tradition. Meaning: As many as three puppeteers who are visible to the audience (if you've seen "Avenue Q," you'll understand the conceit) are working to give each puppet its incredibly lifelike movements and expressions.

A role in Anthony Minghella's production of "Madama Butterfly" in London and at New York's Metropolitan Opera last year catapulted the puppeteers to some recognition, and their performances at Clarice Smith mark only their second U.S. run.

So why Bukowski, who, though born abroad, was an utterly American author?

"I have a real fixation with America," Down says. "I have a real fixation with alcoholic dead American authors, from Hemingway to Bukowski to Tennessee Williams." (Getting a sense of the wit yet?)

"Bukowski -- I'm just very fond of his writing, the spirit of it. You can feel the way he made his work, the more than wanting, but the needing to write."

The troupe was drawn to Bukowski's rougher works, "where you can feel the author and his works," rather than the better-loved novels, "which are perfect," says Down.

You don't need to be a Bukowski fan to enjoy "Low Life," which isn't at all a word-for-word adaptation from the page. Rather, the puppets -- from Kevin to the miniature plumber to the multitudes of blue men -- play janitors and plumbers, drunks and hags who reflect Bukowski's world, depending as much on delusion as they do on drink.

"Low Life" continues tonight and tomorrow. $30; students $7. 8 p.m. both nights. Kogod Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, Route 193 and Stadium Drive, College Park. 301-405-2787.

Save the Date

CONCERT: Christylez Bacon This rapper-actor-guitarist (common name: Chris Bacon) is a Southeast Washingtonian so intriguing that a local filmmaker made him the subject of a 2004 documentary, "Blue Line: Destination Christylez," all while he was still a teenager. Now, you have a chance to catch Bacon when he plays the second of two shows at the Mansion at Strathmore on March 26 with an elaborate backup band that includes didgeridoo, tabla and djembe players and a human beatbox (the first show, we hear, was amazing). $10. 7:30 p.m. Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, Bethesda. 301-581-5100.

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