Actually, who among us can recall them at all?
“There aren’t any famous puppet death scenes, far as we know,” says Judd Palmer, co-director of “Famous Puppet Death Scenes,” which runs through Jan. 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. “So we made them up.”
It’s a clever conceit, and one that allows the Calgary, Canada-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop to try out a new theater and puppet style every few minutes.
The first of the 23 scenes stars hand puppets, while later ones use more exotic forms, such as puppets that are manipulated by sticks or worn like costumes. By the middle of the play, there’s a scene where the puppets are soap bubbles and one where you’d be hard-pressed to identify any physical puppet at all. (Not counting the bubbles, 35 puppets meet their doom in 90 minutes.)
“We thought, ‘If there is a kind of puppet we don’t have, we should probably invent a scene for it,’ ” Palmer says.
After all, a puppet can be as simple as a block of wood. All you have to do is give it a voice and wave it around, and people will empathize with it.
“Humans have this instinct to care about a doll or a Star Wars figurine or even pixels moving around on a screen in the shape of a human face,” he says. “We have this weirdly evolved tendency to impute consciousness to things that we know don’t have it.”
The Trouts depend on this tendency. Puppetry only works when audiences come to the theater with open hearts and lively imaginations, Palmer says.
“Americans are really good at this, actually. Canadians like to sit back, stroke their chin and say, ‘Entertain me,’ ” he says.
Audiences, especially those that meet the Trouts halfway, often end up crying over the puppet deaths and then laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
“A lot of the deaths are funny, but somehow the cumulative effect ends up hitting you somewhere real, somewhere inside, where you realize, ‘We are all going to die. That sucks,’ ” Palmer says. “It’s the perfect show for the holidays!”
For Palmer, the saddest puppet death comes second-to-last. That’s when the play’s narrator, a professorial puppet named Nathanial Tweak, expires.
Tweak, according to the play, spent his life curating this very set of puppet death scenes, even seeking out the puppets who originally appeared in them. As his final act, he attempts to perform the perfect puppet death scene.
“As you can imagine, it doesn’t come together for him, and that is a total metaphor for being an artist,” Palmer says. “We all have this fantasy that someday we will make something great, something eternal, and then we die knowing we never quite pulled it off.”