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Curtain Up: Beware the Puppets


By David Landau

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM

A tunnel into the creepy, scary, tenebrous underworld of marionettes opens in October, when Erik Sanko brings his deliciously twisted play, The Fortune Teller, to UCLA's Freud Playhouse. The two-foot-tall, wood and papier-mâché constructions are perverse puppets of all types: Some are emaciated and pallid, others corpulent and an unnatural dirty-dough color; there's a ghastly alligator in a worn and jig-sawed tuxedo jacket; and a grimy, grubby-green puppet, whose maniacal, bug-eyed face is smeared with greasy black paint.

The play revolves around seven characters representing the seven deadly sins, who convene at a dead millionaire's estate to claim their inheritance as determined by a fortune teller. One by one, each is delivered what they have coming to them — but perhaps not what they are expecting.

The intricate Victorian set, designed by Sanko's wife, Jessica Grindstaff, opens upon itself throughout the play to reveal multiple backdrops. Narration is voiced by a gravelly Gavin Friday.

Former Lounge Lizards bassist and hip New York City puppetmaker Sanko, current frontman for the group Skeleton Key, is a marionette enthusiast eager to explore their under-utilized eeriness.

"Very few puppet theaters take advantage of their creepy factor," says Sanko. "I'm into how potentially creepy puppets can be. They can say things that people would be uncomfortable saying."

The music, creepy but catchy, is exactly the kind of great addition one would expect from Danny Elfman, composer of such film scores as Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Says Sanko about Elfman: "I told him the story, and he started jotting down music. Then he went home and wrote a bunch of things and e-mailed them to me, and we made a few notes and a few suggestions, and that was it: We were done, which was amazing! [The music] allows us [and] the puppets so much freedom ... regarding movement. It's so inspiring."

Be prepared for shocks, surprises and a dark, fun time. However, for prospective audience members, Sanko has a bit of advice: "If any people are sensitive to two-foot-tall naked accordion players, be forewarned."