I Promised Myself to Live Faster presented by Hell In A Handbag Productions at Chopin Theatre

The chickens dubbed "Jersey Giants" by poultry breeders can grow to heights of over twenty-four inches and weigh up to fourteen pounds, but urban audiences at Hell In a Handbag's Agatha Christie parody A Fine Feathered Murder were still unprepared for the entrance of a SIX-FOOT-TALL ROOSTER that proceeded to nuzzle people's pockets in search of snacks and even steal a sip from a front-row customer's glass of beer. Portraying this formidable fowl was Lolly Extract—along with Amber Marsh, co-founder of Jabberwocky Marionettes—whose past creations have ranged from life-sized tigers and dinosaur skeletons to a post-apocalyptic robot infant so adorable that the Jeff committee voted to gift its "parents" with an Artistic Specialization award.

Handbag's current production of I Promised to Live Faster is a different biosphere altogether, though. This "Intergalactic Extravaganza" conceived by Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company is a camp/drag LGTBQ spoof of High-Fantasy myth, replete with copious references to Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocky Horror Show, featuring enough irreverent Charles Ludlam-styled humor to make The Mystery of Irma Vep sound like Angels In America.

What kind of creatures populate this adults-only universe? Think about the early scene in Star Wars set in the waterfront cantina--then imagine the cantina located in Pig Iron hometown's "Gayborhood" district. Among the unexpected sights loitering on its fringes are a ten-inch penis protruding from a "glory hole" portal, rod-puppet dragonflies and flying fish (the latter sporting jeweled extra-long tongues), a marionette whose mammary equipment encompasses six nipples and an antenna-eyed caterpillar with a prehensile hand emerging from its mouth.

Why were these particular prototypes chosen as models for the Jabberwockies' extraterrestrial menagerie? "The Flying Kissers sprang from my wanting the puppets up in the air, visually—that is, out of the grounded humans' way," Extract admits, "I also wanted the alien-planet costumes to contrast with the darkness of—well, outer space, so I went for this translucent rainbow material, white for the outer surfaces and beneath, iridescent underlayers highlighted with hot raspberry-pink markings."

The designs, she explains further, "were based in the possibilities of action and interaction. I started with sketches, and once I was sure [director JD Caudill] and I were both headed in the same direction—I'd worked with him before, developing 'baby-bot Arthur' in After The Blast, so we already had a creative collaboration characterized by mutual trust—I double-checked the dimensions and then proceeded to 3-D."

How much time are the actors allowed for acclimating to these weird creatures sharing their onstage space? "At this point, the race to the finish line begins—namely, me trying to build the puppets for rehearsal! I think it's important to bring the puppets in at the earliest date, even if they're not finished, so that everybody can weigh in on opportunities for innovative blocking."

Extract admits that some of those brainstorms required later revision. For example, the "Preying" Mantis that our hero encounters in the "disreputable" tavern was originally swaddled in garb too cumbersome for the quick-change preceding its appearance. "But then [costume designer] Beth Miller wondered whether Jabberwocky might have something in their vaults, and the Mantis now seen every night was born."

"This was still at the beginning of the conceptive process," Extract reminds me, "but the actors were already very excited—excited, forgiving and patient. The audience, too, informs us," she adds. grinning, "The after-show comments are priceless!"

How so? "In the Chopin Theater basement, the puppets are only inches away from the audience at times. There's so much going on all at once, the folks watching can't believe what we're doing on stage—and we are doing everything, remember. So we get giggles, and gasps, and huge smiles the whole way through."

Do the puppets' operators also enjoy their experience, or are they too busy working?

"This is what I like the most about Jabberwocky's approach to puppetry," declares Extract, " We practice together until we are able to achieve a fever pitch of perfection, every evening, while performing this beautiful love story! This could be my favorite Handbag production."

I Promised To Live Faster runs through May 7 at the Chopin Theater.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer