Love and Robots: A Puppet Rock Opera

Paperhand Puppet Intervention
At The ArtsCenter March 5–7
In Saxapahaw March 12–21

Been feeling heartsick and helpless lately? Depressed because John-Boy turned out to be a big fat liar? Freaking because the major corporation to which you entrusted your online backup went out of business? Furious because all the fish are full of mercury? Scared since your Prius ran away from you? Be of good cheer. February is finally over, and The ArtsCenter in Carrboro is presenting a show that proves all good people have not yet left this planet.

Paperhand Puppet Intervention is back with a delightful and soul-sustaining retelling of the eternally recyclable savior story in which one creature sacrifices his life so that all others may live. Not drama but parable, Love and Robots: A Puppet Rock Opera charms, soothes and energizes as it reminds us to fight the power and to love one another right now.

In a time exactly like our own, except that it’s 2,000 years from now, the denizens of a space installation look down on Earth and reconstruct the story of their survival. The saints and saviors in this piece are all robots. Down back roads they come together, ragtag and on the lam from MegaCorp, to congregate on hidden farms in a place very much like Upper Chatham/ Lower Alamance. They grow food, not government subsidized, chemical-infused food-like substances (to employ Michael Pollan’s term); under the twirling windmills, they repair each other with scavenged parts. They are under the radar, off the grid and fully connected.

In case you just dropped in from another planet or town, Paperhand Puppet Intervention is an ever-morphing collaborative art-making group swirling around founders Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman and their enormous puppets, some of which take many people to carry and animate. Since 1999, several others have become regular makers/ participants in PPI’s activities. Love and Robots was created and directed by Zimmerman and Jimmy Magoo, who wrote the musical score, along with his fellows in the Paperhand Band.

This show also includes a funkadelic, futuristic set, wonderful, simple, flat imagery projected on screens, shadow puppets and a fantastic marionette that dances like a STREB actioneer. (Elizabeth Streb was recently in Chapel Hill, showing off a little bitty dancing robot, among other things. One wishes she could have seen these robots rock. Streb, undeniably a movement genius, is very well funded by government and mega-corporations, and has access to the MIT art and technology lab. Paperhand gets its little money from us little people, and for this show, got its mad scientist in the form of solar/ wind engineer Chris Carter.)

Part of the power in this artwork comes from its freshness. Like many things homegrown and homemade, Love and Robots is not slick (although it is remarkably shiny). It is anticommercial and as radical as Christianity when it was new. The group’s mission says, “Our will is set on undermining, and eventually, eradicating the institutions of greed, hate, and fear that plague the world in myriad forms.” This goal is reflected in the puppets themselves, in which you can always see how the magic is made. That transparency in no way mitigates their power to bust the crust on a wizened heart.

This is a good thing at The ArtsCenter, where you can always see the man behind the curtain because the curtain has gaps. The ArtsCenter is a beloved community place, but it’s shabby and rundown, and the acoustics aren’t that great. But when the rhyming begins (“majesty turned to travesty”), the guitars sing out, the chorus of sweet children’s voices swells unrestrained from the audience and the grand silver puppet floats onto the tiny stage, none of that matters.

Turns out, love is all you need. And imagination.