nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 15, 2010
Part puppetry, part modern clowning, part flea circus, part philosophical musing in grandiose vocabulary, The Hyperbolist is an investigation into the possibility of love (romantic, familial, sexual, spiritual, and metaphorical) in a world mostly filled with human cruelty. Puppets that seem inspired by Giacometti sculptures pontificate, sometimes spinning utter falsehoods; a Chaplin-esque figure ventures out, in short silent-film sequences, in search of connection; a pair of imaginary fleas demonstrate the difference between mindless sex and true love, witnessed by their mildly-mad scientist of a ringmaster and narrated to us. The thread holding it all together is the obsessively self-conscious and self-commenting energy of the ringmaster-clown-puppeteer-narrator, Joe Mazza.
From the moment you enter the theatre to be greeted by and introduced to the performer, uncomfortably crammed between the front row of seats and the red velvet curtain, it's clear that The Hyperbolist will place you in a relationship of sometimes uncomfortable intimacy with its creator—and the obsessively verbose interlocutors and narrators he conjures up for his investigation. Mazza seems to both narrate and analyze every moment as it goes by, sometimes interrogating his own performance, sometimes conversing with the audience (often individually and by name), sometimes commenting on technical difficulties. The line between persona and performer can often get a little blurry, a little too "meta" in its metaphysics, but Mazza is never less than compelling to watch.
And while the ostensible topic, the investigation of love, seems to ultimately lead to a fairly conventional place, the piece is full of entertainment, with manically verbose tangents popping out all over. Those byways and intricate cul-de-sacs are fascinating, weird fun: A puppeteer accuses his beaky-nosed, inarticulate puppet of not really being able to answer the puppeteer's question and yanks him offstage. The Chaplin-esque film hero nurses a baby in the form of an inflatable globe. A mad scientist goes off on an indictment of American politics and contemporary culture while waiting for his trained (imaginary) flea to climb a tiny ladder and jump into a tiny washtub. The Hyperbolist himself (a grotesque, pompous figure of a puppet, with a rhetorical style that seems lifted from the stodgiest of Victorian novels) charges "Rag," his assistant/slave/companion, to "be a good hero and go out and find your own tragic flaw."
The puppetry is also generally wonderful, partaking of that strange puppeteer's magic whereby tiny figures, neither particularly detailed nor particularly realistic, take on a strange, charmed expressiveness. Rag, for example, is nothing more than a, well, a rag—bits of fluff on a stick—and yet you see an emotional relationship between him and his (for lack of a better word) master, albeit one where Rag never gets to utter a word.
The Hyperbolist is a bit of a hodgepodge; every bit of it didn't resonate with me, but I enjoyed my journey through it.