Brett Neveu's artistic mission is simple: ruin everything. He's been ruining puppetry with his "adult-themed puppet show," The Pup At Theatre: Hidden Surprise Shows, which has been produced at a half-dozen venues around town since premiering at Sheffield's five years ago. Neveu and sidekick Eric C. Johnson pull a few dozen ratty puppets from cardboard boxes and put them through pointless skits lacking any imagination whatsoever, barking their lines in a series of unconvincing voices. It's one of the stupidest, most hysterical hours you can spend in a theater.
Now Neveu's out to ruin improv with a new, fully improvised disaster, The Pup At Theatre: P.Imps. Show. And where better to start than at improv's holiest of holy shrines--Second City. For April Fool's Day, a friend invited Neveu and his four fellow "puppeteers"--Johnson, Stephanie Frey, Megan Gogerty, and Doug Steckel--to do excerpts from P.Imps. as special guests to cap off a late-night main-stage show. "It sounded like a good idea," Neveu says with a nervous laugh, "except, given the nature of the show, which is to try to ruin things--well, we didn't set out to do that, because I didn't want to jeopardize my friendship."
The shabby quintet showed up at Piper's Alley at the appointed hour, crappy puppets and cardboard boxes in tow. Despite the uneasy stares of the staff, they were ushered backstage and finally introduced to the audience. As they began setting up the trademark Pup At Shield--a four-foot-high cardboard screen held together with electrical tape--they heard an urgent whisper from beyond the footlights: "They look like they're homeless!"
The company launched into P.Imps.'s opening number: ten mismatched, decayed hand puppets singing hyperactive choruses of "Ba ba ba BA!!" over and over. "They loved it," Neveu says. "But that's just, you know, classic puppet nonsense." Then they started their signature skit, "Freddie and Dummy, Shopkeepers." Freddie is some kind of green amphibian who wears a French beret and a perfectly blank expression, while Dummy is an unidentifiable creature with brown fur, walleyes, and a red silk tongue hanging out of his mouth. Neither exudes anything like a personality. A solicitation for ideas from the audience resulted in a suggestion that the two puppets should run a diaper store. Freddie and Dummy then spent five minutes doing anything except act like they were running a diaper store.
"People started laughing," Neveu says, "but after a while--not so much laughing. The laughs only came from the cheap seats in the back." Midway through the next skit, people started leaving.
"Well, it was the first time we had ever performed for an audience, and it was one in the morning," Neveu explains. "Afterward we were all like, 'What was that?'"
The crowds at the TurnAround Theatre--where the Pup At Theatre has a stage of its own every Thursday night--tend to stay put, perhaps because they take improv a little less seriously. P.Imps. is every bit as gloriously vapid as Hidden Surprise. One particularly lame bit simulates a weekly television variety show featuring three puppets and a guest star--always a drunken, overbearing Kermit the Frog--drowning in a bowl of food. What kind of food it is changes each week based on audience suggestions, although it's irrelevant to the skit.
Neveu, who's 29, studied theater as an undergrad at the University of Iowa, where he met Johnson and Steckel. They starred in his first play, Outlaws in Frames, in which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid get sucked into a giant black void and emerge as puppets. After graduation the three moved their upstart No Shame Theater Company to Chicago, where Neveu discovered the weekly open mike at Sheffield's. The strictures of the five-minute, no-tech slot led to the creation of the Pups.
"It had to be self-contained," he explains. "It had to all fit into one briefcase--all the puppets, my costume, and sometimes a tape recorder. I'd put the briefcase on a table, open it, and duck down behind the open cover with puppets on my hands. So the script had to fit onto one sheet because I couldn't turn pages." After two years he had enough material for a full evening.
Neveu's not just a bad puppeteer: he's been a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists since 1997. But aside from the occasional ten-minute one-act produced at some small festival or other, none of his plays have ever seen the light of day here. "I don't worry about it," he says. "The Pups keep me balanced. I spend a lot of time working on plays, rewriting, but I know the Pups work. I can always come back to them."
Though the Pups heap ruin on the theater on a regular basis, they also bring a childlike joy. In keeping with the spirit of Fluxus, the playful insurrectionist art movement founded in the 60s, Neveu and his Pups prove that you don't need expertise to entertain.
"There are so many actors out there who would really like to do puppets but are scared of the technique," Neveu says. "Well then, forget the technique. Get rid of the technique. Just get out there and have fun with them, like you would if you were a kid.
"Real puppeteers come to our shows and they're like, 'Hmmm--no, all wrong.' And I say, so what?"
The Pup At Theatre: P.Imps. Show runs Thursdays at 8 through May 18 at the TurnAround Theatre, 3209 N. Halsted. Tickets are $8. Call 773-248-3287.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.