To see “Bug Girl,” theater audiences will go, as the Drifters once sang, up where the air is fresh and sweet.
A shadow-puppet play, “Bug Girl” will require audiences of about 50 people to climb to the top of the stairs of Minneapolis’ recently reopened Bakken Museum. The unsettling play will be staged on the roof of the Bakken Oct. 15-24, just in time to get folks in the mood for Halloween. A quartet of puppeteers will use three large screens and four overhead projectors to tell the story of a 1980s-set power struggle between the two characters implied by the show’s title.
Recommended for ages 13 and up, “Bug Girl” “has a playful element to it but the sound does get scary and the story is kind of dark,” according to creator/puppet builder/performer/director Liz Howls.
The “Bug Girl” idea had its larval stage a couple of years ago when the co-creator of the plays “Milly and Tillie” and “Little Lu” visited a friend in New York.
“We gave ourselves a deadline to make a puppet show in about a week. He lived on the Hudson River so he built a stage on a floating raft and made a shadow screen on it,” recalled Howls, who has been making puppets since she was an Iowa fifth-grader (she moved here to get an art degree from the University of Minnesota). “I brainstormed an idea about this bug crawling into a girl’s mouth and she transforms. It was only a 10-minute show at the most. But I kept playing with the idea.”
With a Jim Henson Foundation grant, Howls continued to develop the piece. A longer version was a hit at the Twin Cities Horror Festival last year. That’s where Open Eye Figure Theatre’s producing artistic director Joel Sass saw it and asked Howls if she’d like to continue to work on it. Now about 35 minutes long and featuring a script by Senah Yeboah-Sampong, “Bug Girl” will be preceded by live music to make a full evening of it.
“Bug Girl’s” puppetry is a great fit for Open Eye, plus it helps expand what the theater can present during the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer, in addition to online offerings, Open Eye shifted programming to its windows and a neighboring garden. Officials at the Bakken heard about those efforts and reached out to discuss a partnership that would include a production on their green roof. Because its audience and its (nonspeaking) performers can be physically distant from each other, “Bug Girl” felt like a good choice, and its horror elements made it perfect for Shocktober.
“Anybody who’s a fan of old-style 1950s B horror movies or sci-fi comics or graphic novels is going to love ‘Bug Girl,’ ” said Sass. “It’s a slightly creepy, really witty episodic adventure told through this imagination-expanding vocabulary of shadow puppetry.”
In addition to the scary elements in the show, audiences will detect a message of empathy.
“Often, when I’m storytelling, I like to voice a character who is minuscule, who might be unnoticed by us in our daily life. I think puppetry can do that, too: make us focus in on something, get drawn into a world that’s tiny,” said Howls, who vows this won’t be the end for these characters.
“I consider [this play] to be sort of an origin story of Bug Girl. It’s a journey between these two entities, the bug and the girl, and them coming together,” Howls said. “At first there’s not a lot of control [for the girl] but at the end, well, I don’t want to spell it out for everybody, but it doesn’t end on a dark note. It ends with a plan.”
Eventually, Howls envisions a series of adventures, in the same way Wonder Woman comics check in on the heroine, which is why each audience member will receive a comic book that provides context for the “episode” of “Bug Girl” they are about to see.
“In my dreams, in my desires, another half-hour or 40-minute show gets released as soon as I can fund it and make it happen. Puppetry takes so much work, and especially shadow puppetry has a lot of building elements to it. So a 35-minute show can definitely be a full [experience]. You’re constantly presenting visual art pieces in front of people, one after another,” said Howls.
Behind the screen
She estimates that the four puppeteers will use about 200 puppets and other figures — each a work of art — during the course of the show. Those puppets are placed on overhead projectors, casting their shadows onto the screens and allowing their silhouettes to interact with a live performer.
Unlike the proverbial magician who’s reluctant to reveal secrets, Howls hopes the performers can come out from behind their screens at the end of the show to give audiences a peek at how they work their theatrical magic.
“If we can figure out a way to do that in a safe way, I love showing off the tricks,” said Howls. “When they go backstage it’s like, ‘Whoa. That’s what you were doing back there? You did all that with just a flashlight? Cool!’ ”
Who: Created and directed by Liz Howls. Written by Senah Yeboah-Sampong.
When: 7 p.m. Thu.-Sat. Ends Oct. 24.
Where: Bakken Museum rooftop, 3537 Zenith Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $15, openeyetheatre.org.