Snuffhouse Dustlouse was first performed in 1990 by Gavin Glover and Liz Walker, the brains and hands behind Faulty Optic puppet theater. Since then, the show has toured worldwide, becoming a signature piece in the repertoire of this "surreal" and "non-verbal" company which aims to "create worlds unique to the characters that inhabit them."
It's no surprise that so many critics--and the company itself--describe the work as "Beckettian." There are familiar themes here: memory fetish, the gradual winding down of a finite world, daily routine as its own ritual. But while Becket was, in a sense, a puppeteer forced to work with human actors, Faulty Optic beautifully explodes human isolation through haunting puppetry.
The piece isn't easy to explain. The lights come up on a figure (the creators call her "Mabel"), a wizened lump in a dusty cardigan hooked like a fetus or coma patient to a nightmarish mechanical set. She unhooks herself and crawls through her world using her one remaining limb. She stumps through an elaborate morning ritual, firing up a generator by means of a kind of Frankenstein rat and digging up breakfast.
As alien as it all seems, the situations that come are familiar, and funny. An apish green figure becomes an unnerving object of romance. There is a childhood flashback, which takes place in a three-story coffin, with an angry "Mum" and "Da" and a dog that we meet later as a delicate, decayed corpse. There is even a sort of redemption, a glittering finale that comes like a long-overdue Prozac prescription for the existential avant-garde.
In one of the most touching moments--and this piece is inexplicably touching--Mabel unearths a pair of children's galoshes. Without knowing yet what they mean, we see her transfixed. She looks down at her own leg stumps. Then she points to the boots, commanding them to move. They do not. She pulls them over the stumps of her legs and commands them again; they remain, as she topples to the ground and then gives a slow, blank stare to the audience. Although the moment is comic, her heartbreak is palpable.
This moment captures the magic of the Henson festival. Death becomes a heavy figure in Snuffhouse Dustlouse--as it is in life. The quick always becomes the dead. But puppetry is a kind of antidote, the possibility of the inanimate coming to life. We witness an evening of death and resurrection. While Mabel is betrayed by the disobedient galoshes, we are not, because a world of objects is brought to life before our eyes.
This is beautiful, meticulous theater, balanced by what the company calls "the warm, dark English sense of humour." Faulty Optic is masterful in evoking a suspended, dreamlike feeling, and this powerful childhood medium draws us in on a primary emotional level. Snuffhouse Dustlouse is a piece true to its mission.