The dozens of shows that make up a Capital Fringe Festival always vary wildly in terms of subject and style, but perhaps even more in terms of stagecraft. Some shows consist of just a performer and a microphone, or some rehearsal blocks and clothes borrowed from someone’s closet. These shows can be quite impressive, but HalfMad Theatre deserves high praise for the time and skill invested in bringing “Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical” to life (and death).
It’s fun. But it’s HalfMad’s ingenious staging that makes this show worth the trip.
HalfMad took a 1993 film by Parker (later of “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon”) and converted it into a bloody, silly puppet show. To do so, director Elizabeth Dapo hand-crafted about 40 puppets — some different characters, some the main characters in various states of decline and demise. Dapo told DCist that each takes up to 20 hours to make. I have been in shows that didn’t have 20 hours of preparation, period.
So what did the company do with all these cotton co-stars? On arrival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center Sprenger Theatre — a large auditorium that almost sold out for the opening — the audience sees the cast rushing to hammer together a puppet stage made out to look like an Old West town. While this activity is no doubt due to the short prep time Fringe troupes have, it added to the “let’s put on a show” zaniness of the enterprise.
The bulk of the carnage happens in the show’s first moments, a carnival of quilted murder that’s like the 2014 Woolly Mammoth show “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” watched on fast-forward. After that, “Cannibal” takes on more of a 19th century “Avenue Q” feel, as our protagonist, the hapless Alfred Packer, finds himself pushed into leading an expedition from Utah into Colorado, his protests of inexperience ignored. When Packer is the sole survivor, leaving chewed-up bodies in his wake, he is put on trial.
Ben Ribler plays Packer both in puppet form and flesh form — while several actors emerge from behind the puppet theatre to take on human roles, Packer is the only character who appears as both cloth and human. He is joined in the human realm by Alison Daniels as Polly Pry, a reporter who believes him that the murders were not what they seem. Daniels has a couple of triumphant musical solos before dashing back behind the stage to be a puppeteer again.
It’s that versatility of the cast that is most impressive. The cast juggles multiple puppets — there are even butterflies and woodland creatures that a less ambitious director would have left out — as playing human roles. As for Parker’s show itself — it’s hit and miss, and about what you would expect: some clever lines, some dirty jokes, some gibes about Mormonism. It’s fun. But it’s HalfMad’s ingenious staging that makes this show worth the trip.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up. This show contains profanity.
“Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St NE in Washington, will run through July 22. For tickets and more information, click here.