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Credit where credit is due: Padraic Duffy doesn't leave well enough alone, instead stretching the minds of his audiences, stretching the talents of his theatre makers. His latest effort is ambitious, mixing technology with ancient arts of puppeteering to tell a simple story. At least we think it's a simple story: Opening night fumbles seemed to mar much of the production, including perhaps a concluding video that might have either tied the evening together or provided a Duffian twist.

Were this show playing one of the big houses, the two weeks of previews would have resolved many of the technical glitches—although even the big boys occasionally suffer misfiring machinery and squeaking scenery. But these brave souls plunged ahead. At least they plunged when they could. The outstanding puppetry elements (designed by Christine Papalexis & Ruth Silveira) that so tenderly make us see a 3-foot-tall boy running through bamboo forests and cringing at sweetly scary monsters require three black-clad performers to operate him: one realistically handling the legs, one for an expressive pair of gloved hands (Sam Hale), and one to turn the head and voice the lines (Conor Duffy). How does this three-brained, six-legged cluster, their faces hidden by black veils, communicate to improvise around light cues that fail to cue, film clips that fail to roll?

What would have happened to our hero, the young Marty, as he returns home after a time-bending, circular trip under the sea, guided ambivalently by the moon (Silveira)? Did he learn lessons from swimming with the fish or nattering with a crab? Never mind, because we learn much about the actors who brought life to their puppets: Julianne Buescher's body wafts and swirls under Angie the Fish as she brings a wry sarcasm to a round green puppet, while Gregory Manion and an assistant deftly and humorously click Crab's claws as Manion ladles a New Jersey accent over the crusty crustacean. What was the upshot of Marty's dealings with the gangster Duck (voiced by Ralph Gorgolione) and his assistant, a drowned-rat mouse (voiced by Yulia Yemelin)? Finally, why does Momma Bird (manipulated by Beverly Hynds) stop overfeeding her chick and fly the nest? It's a credit to all concerned that the audience wants to know.

Duffy and his co-director Mauri Bernstein can still tighten the show: Although the Japanese-style of puppetry requires the audiences' patience as the story literally and figuratively unfolds in characteristic slowness, we need at least some variety in pacing, plus more instantaneous, more seamless scene changes. Still, there's always pleasure in anticipating Duffy's fascinating sense of irony, even if the eponymous mechanics don't always fire.

"The Mechanical Rabbit," presented by and at the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Mar. 20-Apr. 26. $15. (310) 281-8337.

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