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Off-Off-Broadway Review

NY Review: 'Lunatic Cunning'

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NY Review: 'Lunatic Cunning'
Photo Source: Jim Moore
Every successful puppet show carefully balances the silly and the magical elements of its craft. Some, such as Jim Henson's Muppets, privilege the silly: Their funny physiques are designed to delight more than seduce. Others, such as Julie Taymor's best work, privilege the magical, as anyone who's witnessed the entrance of the giraffes in "The Lion King" can attest. James Godwin, who deprecatingly refers to himself onstage as a "minorly successfully puppeteer–performance artist," has worked with both Taymor and the Muppets, and he's learned enough to best them at their respective games. In his new solo show, tellingly titled "Lunatic Cunning," he deftly avoids picking a side.

Godwin, who wrote the show with director Tom Burnett, offers over the course of 75 minutes a series of thinly related sketches, exhibiting talents ranging from manipulating shadow puppets to operating marionettes to making cartoons with a projector and a trunk full of transparencies. Each sketch both exploits and undercuts its seductive potential, sometimes with bawdy comedy, such as that of a monster who, trapped in a planting pot, tells dirty jokes while doing tai chi. At other times Godwin does a trick, such as making a severed head move its mouth without using his hands, and then reveals how he pulls it off. In one memorable sequence, a child watches a ghost float out of his closet door, and the effect is so captivating that it's a jolt when the lights come up and we see the strings.

If "Lunatic Cunning" has a moral, it's that knowing the truth behind our fantasies doesn't release us from our need for them. To underscore the point, Godwin, an affable yet sage emcee to his world of wonders, colors the evening with anecdotes about New Age philosophies. Shamanism, Aztec imagery, the collective unconscious, trances, rituals, and acid trips are jumbled to create a kind of hippie Unitarianism, embracing all the eccentric ways that people have explained the universe. This added ingredient is often effective, offering a vocabulary to understand his puppets' uncanny charisma, but the balance sometimes stumbles, and the show becomes a touch self-important. For example, I was unmoved in the final scene, when Godwin switches tone to deliver a personal and emotional story. I hadn't learned how to take him seriously.

Still, the sport of watching a pro in action, the thrill of Godwin's indelible images, and the pleasure of his ambition to do more than entertain make "Lunatic Cunning" magically silly and charmingly magical.

Presented by and at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., NYC. April 6–21. Fri. and Sat., 7:30 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, (212) 219-0736, www.theatermania.com, or www.dixonplace.org

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