On a dark night in October, people flocked with folding chairs, blankets, and cups of hot apple cider to the rooftop of The Bakken Museum for the latest production hosted by The Open Eye Figure Theater. The remixed sci-fi and horror music playing in the background as people arrived set the scene for this creepy-crawly story. Eagerly scurrying to find a place on the green roof, viewers surrounded a set of three screens, two smaller ones framing the larger central one artistically outlined with black insects, to enjoy a much-welcomed live puppet performance from creator Liz Howls, the artist and curator behind the popular Full Moon Puppet Show. It was here, a few nights before Halloween, that the saga of a new superhero began: Bug Girl.
This odd tale of our heroine named June begins as she examines nature outside her house on her grandmother's birthday as relatives arrive to celebrate. Her cruel grandmother relays to the others that she thinks June may be "half parasite," but this innocent girl is just trying to enjoy life and the little bugs she loves so much.
Meanwhile underground, our co-protagonist, a beautiful emerald insect, is contemplating escape from the glass jar the spider Queen has trapped him in. As he thinks about the potential he still holds within himself, he finds the strength to break out of his cage and take to the light even though the darkness feels all consuming.
As he escapes, he finds respite in our young heroine's stomach in order to get away from the Queen's evil snake henchman who is chasing after him. This joining of the two makes for a memorable metamorphosis scene, which was particularly well done, creating a sense of fear and confusion. From there, June is Bug Girl. She navigates encounters with her cruel family and an evil doctor by uncontrollably letting the bug inside her devour them.
Playing with a mix of reference to various forms of media, including superhero comics, old-school computer games, and, of course, shadow puppets, this story is accessible to all ages while being visually captivating enough to be entertaining for everyone. The puppeteers, Karly Gesine Bergmann, Liping Vong, and Oanh Vu, did an excellent job of manipulating their props to maintain a consistency in the visual storyline while also providing novel moments to keep the audience highly engaged.
The music and sound, done by Dan Dukich, was fantastically framed around the eerie story. Although there was some dialogue, the performance felt abstract enough that it did not add much to the overall effect of the journey. In fact, I would have been as satisfied with the production had it been performed without any spoken lines, highlighting even more enhanced sound effects, music, and the occasional subtitled line as needed.
In these times, when people are so frightened by the “bugs” or viruses inside others, Liz Howls' team confronts us with a different narrative: the desire to understand and sympathize with the “infected." There are several moments in the story that also point to lessons worth learning and remembering, such as, it is never pointless to break free. June and the emerald insect both ensure us of that. In such a short performance time of only 35 minutes, it was astounding how Liz Howls effectively brought viewers visual intrigue, life lessons, and an origin story of a new heroine.
After the performance, Liz invited anyone interested to take a closer look behind the scenes to see the props and how the crew made it all function. Liz answered questions from audience members about her vision and expressed that she imagined, and would like to see, Bug Girl as a comic that could be turned into future live shows following the comic strip. With that potential in mind, I am excited to see what adventures Bug Girl gets up to next! Until then, we will leave this story, in classic comic format, to be continued.