At SF's Garage Theater, Puppet Noir Play Shells Out Performance Worth Savoring

Lynne Fried/Courtesy

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As with all great works, the idea was born from one great line: "He humped me and then he dumped me." Writer-performer Thomas John's "The Lady on the Wall: A Puppet Noir" cracks the case of the death of Humpty Dumpty, an abandoned shell of a woman left by a lover to grieve on a wall and die. But was it murder?

In a novel take on an old nursery rhyme and "The Maltese Falcon," the play (directed by Dan Griffiths) features an all-ovum cast, starring John as narrator and puppeteer, alongside a cast of egg, egg, rotten egg, hard-boiled egg and - yes, please - a little bit of bacon on the side.

Performed in San Francisco's Garage Theater this past weekend for an encore presentation, the show chronicles the life (and death) of Maude Meringe, a.k.a. Humpty Dumpty. With a scrambled assembly of characters featuring Bob, the Hardboiled Detective, and suspected murderer The Poacher, "Lady on the Wall" delves into the underbelly of Carton City, embracing sex, murder, mystery and mayhem; it's enough to surpass any PG-13 rating.

But the play's very appeal is in an intentionally amateur presentation, with a D.I.Y. aesthetic that whips together the unscripted with the intentional: Here, a cracked (dead) egg is never too much to expect, whether by accident, or murder. Fashioned as a children's production for adults, "Lady on the Wall" counters bawdy humor with witty pun and tongue-in-cheek noir sophistication.

Part of the show's success is in its ability to appeal to the viewers' juvenile humor, while still remaining thoughtful. Childlike, low-budget, call it what you will - the stars here are egg-heads with drawn-on faces, who lay low in cardboard cartons and get out of slippery situations with a sideways roll.

The puppeteer himself commands his own share of the limelight, a well-timed performer who wins over audiences with a nerdy, know-it-all allure. It's clear, too, that this egg-noir is the product of an off-beat mind: The idea for the production came during John's work on another puppet piece, a reality TV-inspired take on Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." John hoped "to do a play where (he) could break the puppets," he wrote in an email, and "Lady on the Wall" was born out of "trying to justify an egg saying, 'He humped me and dumped me.'"

"Lady on the Wall" is just another of John's new-take-on-old-works: On February 11th, he will present at the Booksmith in the Haight, as part of its "Literary Clown Foolery: Books Meet Clowns" event. His work? A revised version of Amy Chua's memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." A burlesque interpretation, "The Battle Hymn of the American Juggler" features John in Chua's place: "I don't let balls play with other balls," he said. He also rips up their birthday cards.

A graduate of San Francisco's Clown Conservatory and accomplished street performer, John in "Lady" is a relatable act of sophomoric sophistication, balancing cool reservation with nervous mystique. The skepticism an egg-puppet-noir inspires is offset by his performance.

Engaging and accessible charm permeates the 45-minute play, one that encourages audience participation and off-the-cuff improvisation. And though the end is wrapped up in telling more than showing, John manages to eke out an impressive amount of captivating show - for a guy with a couple of eggs on a desk.

Liz Mak is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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