Puppets Get Freaky


Reading a casting call specifying that actors should be between 3 feet and 5 feet tall and possess a wolflike nose and coarse body hair, we wondered if someone was looking for more Average Joe contestants. But it turns out that the performers in demand are made of cloth, papier-mâché and found objects — and belong to Paul Mesner, whose puppet troupe presents El Chupacabra, one of his rare shows for mature audiences only. “It’s been over three years since Ten Things You Should Never Do With a Puppet, the last adult show,” Mesner says. “Audience members who go to the other shows tell me all the time to do another one.”

Their wish is Mesner’s command. The subject this time around is the South and Central American legend that’s seeped into Texas and New Mexico, rivaling America’s collective fear of a certain escaped lunatic with a bloody hook for a hand. Allegedly first spotted in 1975 in Puerto Rico, the chupacabra — translated, that’s goat sucker — instilled terror after farm animals were found dead with strange puncture wounds in their necks. The animals weren’t merely bitten, though. They were drained of all internal juices and left flattened like gruesome area rugs with eye sockets.

Mesner says he relishes the macabre myth and its ability to sprout different theories like tentacles. “The origin of a creature like this is timeless,” he says. “One theory is the devil, of course. Another is an alien. And then there’s the escaped CIA agent from Los Alamos. It’s terribly grisly. That’s part of the fascination.”

One of Mesner’s tasks was to create a fluid show out of the legions of tales about the creature. “One Web site mentioned dozens of sightings, but I’ve winnowed it down to nine that interested me,” he says. Among his favorites are a story involving the devil and a story about a priest and a boy. “And I’m toying with a takeoff on aThree Billy Goats Gruff,'” he says.

It’s that kind of creative energy (some might say recklessness) that forces a question about doing adults-only shows when one’s predominant audience skews so young that it’s still battling diaper rash.

“The board of directors was recently discussing the abrand’ and whether we needed to rename the adult puppet branch of Paul Mesner Puppets,” Mesner says. “Branding is important, and my brand is certainly kid-friendly. But most people know I’m an adult. And I’ve been around so long that, at the last adult show, young adults came who told me they’d been coming since they were kids. That’s incredibly gratifying.”

Mesner is on the road a lot. In fact, we talked to him between gigs in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Parryville, Missouri. And he’s taking El Chupacabra to Phoenix in the near future. Though he regrets that it’s been so long since his last adult show, he isn’t without ideas about future grown-up productions.

“I’ve got one about JonBenet Ramsey, Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, who died within days or weeks of each other,” Mesner says. “That’s not too dated, is it?” You’ve got to be kidding.