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    Photos by Zed Saeed

    The first look wallops, rattling even the steeliest of grown-ups who have horror movie’d themselves into monster complacency. Look away and nothing disappears. The face is there forever, hideous and magnificent, lower jaw protruding, shoving out a row of yellowed, erratic teeth. Its eyes: one sky blue and wandering, the other blood orange, bulging and wild. A gaping crimson wound curves over the skull. 

    Its creators have named this seven-foot-tall, barrel-chested thing “Creature” or “Creach.” Come late October, in a play titled Creature: A Wretched Frankenstein Adaptation, it will reveal itself to audiences. Two people operate Creature’s lanky, tattoo-covered arms, as well as its “neck” and face — a face that, when stared at for several moments, loses some repulsiveness and instead appears pained and confused.


    Photo: The Creature.

    Most everyone knows the bare-bones Frankenstein tale — an experiment gone awry, a cruel world, lonesomeness and loss, bundles of suffering. And that’s all you’ll need going into this production, an impressionistic repackaging of Mary Shelley’s famous work from the 1800s. There will be puppets. But erase the squeaky, fuzzy characters of your youth. That’s not this.

    Behold Creature: 30 different fabrics dyed to look like skin from 30 different rotting bodies, all hand-stitched together during late-night hours, the artist accidently pricking herself with the needles, adding small stains of human blood, gore that neither her sketch books nor her imagination drew up. So goes the journey of Creature.

     

    Zach Bramel elates when discussing monsters. “All my monster loves — whether comic-book monsters, Hellboy, the Incredible Hulk — their lineage all falls back to Frankenstein,” he says. His passion for puppets developed after he started working on shows for Squallis Puppeteers. The 41-year-old with orange-red Rapunzel-like hair he usually twists or tucks into a cap sees “magic” in puppetry. About two years ago, while working on a Squallis show, he met Deva North, another pro-monster puppet fan with a gift for design and sewing.


    Photo: Playwright and Creature puppeteer Zach Bramel.

    Together one day, the two recall Creature’s genesis. The Squallis show they had been working on was set in outer space. There was a live band and intricate puppetry. “As soon as the band started playing to what we were doing on the stage, I was like, ‘That’s it. This is the closest thing I’m going to get to Sesame Street,’” Bramel says. “I felt like we were creating something great. (Creature) is the adult version of that.”

    North nods. “Far more complicated,” she adds in a flat, factual tone.

    A fondness for Shelley’s book, a longing to pull off a creepy puppet show. A Frankenstein adaptation flickered in Bramel’s brain, bit by bit, a vision that was persistent and crystallizing. “Much like Mary Shelley,” he says.

    As Bramel and North collaborated on the idea, they agreed on wanting nothing to do with goofy green monsters diluted through pop culture. Their Frankenstein would be grotesque, memorable, fragile and hostile. North, a mother of two young girls, started sketching and stitching in the basement of her home. Slowly, the “monster in mommy’s basement” began to take shape. 


    Photo: "Creach" will debut later this month in Creature: A Wretched Frankenstein Adaptation.

     

    It’s Labor Day, summer’s last hurrah. Time for the first rehearsal.

    “This show has turned into a monster, and I want to thank you all for hanging on,” Bramel says to the seven-person crew. Bramel, North, director Steven Rahe and a few actors who will puppeteer sit in cushioned chairs at a downtown chapel, an outline of the script in hand.

    “It’s a creature understanding its humanity and grappling with that,” Bramel says. “It’s a non-traditional narrative that’s primarily nonverbal.” North likens it to performance art more than traditional theater onstage. (The NuLu location of the play is being kept secret until a later date. The show will be Oct. 20, 21 and 27.)


    Photo: Director Steven Rahe.

    Bramel and North have no support from an established theater company, just a collection of talented friends who’ve roped in a few of their friends. Louisville guitarist Axel Cooper and his band will perform original music that Bramel describes as “darkly melodic.” A projectionist will help re-create Victor Frankenstein’s science lab, the woods, burning sunsets and haunting, cold nights.

    Bramel begins Puppetry 101. Overt puppetry: a style in which puppeteers are not hidden. No crouching behind tables or Jim Henson Muppets trickery. “It’s like watching two movies at once when it’s done well,” Bramel explains. “Your brain does this trick where you’re watching and buying what the puppet does, but then at any moment you can look up and watch the puppeteer too, and there’s a whole universe of things happening.”


    Photo: Overt puppetry is a style in which puppeteers are not hidden.

    Creature’s head will rely on Bramel’s left hand for movement. Bramel’s right hand will operate Creature’s right arm. Creature’s torso will hide much of Bramel’s upper body and face, but Bramel’s legs are Creature’s legs. A separate puppeteer will maneuver Creature’s left arm.

    Bramel picks up a puppet that’s about two feet tall, a girl named Agatha who the Creature will share some tender moments with. She’s dramatically smaller than Creature. So puppeteers will be wholly visible, maneuvering rods to create Agatha’s gestures.

    Bramel sets Agatha’s floppy feet on the floor, and he sits beside her so they’re at roughly the same eye level. “If you’re looking at something, you’re looking at something with the puppet. Have her do the looking,” Bramel says, swiveling his head and Agatha’s head in unison up to the ceiling. “You’re seeing and experiencing everything through the puppet. Trust that people are not looking at you. They’re going to be looking at the puppet and they’re going to be buying in.”


    Photo: Rehearsal with Agatha and Felix.

    Everyone nods. “You guys want to play?” Rahe, the director, says. Two actors grab Agatha and Felix, Agatha’s older brother. Within moments, burlap fists jab and kick. “That’s why Punch and Judy is hundreds of years old,” Bramel says with a chuckle.

    With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, North and Bramel will pay their crew a few hundred bucks each. “Basically a dollar an hour,” Bramel jokes. “All these people are working for far less than what they’re worth.” But Amy Davis, a recent college graduate jazzed on improv and acting, doesn’t mind. “They could’ve paid me with rocks on a sidewalk,” she says, her shoulders bouncing like exclamation points on a trampoline.

    Rahe suggests they try to make the puppets skip. Davis begins skipping along the chapel’s gray, worn carpet, Jesus and saints watching from a stained-glass perch. “I’m trying to remember as my one foot comes down when my other foot comes up,” she mumbles as she skips along.


    Photo: It takes two puppeteers to maneuver Creature.

    Rahe, a theater veteran by way of southern Indiana, New York City and now Louisville, stands a few feet off, watching the actors practice puppet waves and walking. “It’s a designer-driven show, which means this particular production relies heavily on spectacle. I think even more than a conventional play with live actors onstage,” he says during a rehearsal one night. “I’ve seen moving and heart-wrenching puppetry. The power is there. We just need to harness it.”

     

    For hours, for days, for weeks, and on weekends — OK, for two years — Deva North has descended a steep staircase into the wood-paneled basement of her home off Brownsboro Road. She hangs a sharp left into a closet that hides her home’s water heater, a cat’s litter box and all the equipment she needs to imagine, sketch and sew puppets. “Deva’s lab,” is what Bramel likes to call it.

    “I’m an introverted shut-in. I hide in my basement and make art,” North says in her basement one night, as her two little girls squeal in an upstairs bathroom and crickets chirp outside her window. She holds up a soup pot full of sludge. “It’s walnut dye time.”

    North, a dark-haired, dark-eyed 38-year-old, has a dry wit and deep honesty about her. As an artist, she’s meticulous, determined. The walnut dye: a homemade brew of walnuts from the neighborhood boiled so long that when she goes to sleep the stench lives in her pillowcase. But it’s perfect for that decaying corpse tone she wants for Creature and other set pieces.


    Photo: Puppet builder and designer Deva North holding Agatha.

    North calls her process “a method-acting version of puppet-making.” She assumes Victor Frankenstein’s role. “If you’re digging up bodies (to make the monster), you’re not just digging up Aryan, healthy bodies,” she explains. “Some bodies come from a man, some a woman.” She’s used tea and coffee stains to reflect different races. Creature’s left arm is slender and more mobile, the “female presenting arm,” North says. Creature’s right arm is beefier, covered in nearly 40 tattoos to represent masculinity.


    Photo: Creature's early sketches.

    All of those tattoos have been hand-embroidered, nearly entirely by North. Creature’s knuckles spell out MARY. “Victor didn’t make the Creature; Mary made the Creature. Let’s give a woman credit where credit is due,” North says. “Victor didn’t make shit.” North’s mom requested a spooky eyeball tattoo. One reads, “You are beautiful,” in braille. (North used to work at the American Printing House for the Blind.) There are nods to North’s Armenian heritage and to Bernie Wrightson, a beloved comic-book artist whose Frankenstein comic North admittedly “geeks out” over.


    Photo: North modeled the Victor Frankenstein mask after a young Vincent Price. (Puppets are unfinished.)

    A fairly standard rose tattoo occupies the top of Creature’s hand. North replicated it on her own bicep. “I’ve spent two years making this giant puppet. I’m gonna do something to honor the work I’ve done,” she says, laughing. A stay-at-home mom, North has made Creature, as well as the show’s five other puppets and a Victor Frankenstein mask, during toddler naptime and after the kids have drifted off at night. Without the budget or time to fly to the art store on a whim, she has manufactured the cast out of trips to the recycling bin and toy shelves. Creature’s eyes? Plastic Easter eggs. Nails? Cut out from milk jugs. Teeth? Legos. Arms? Pool noodles, old bed sheets and scrap fabric.


    Photo: The Agatha puppet was inspired by Armenian children's books North's family read to her as a kid. (Puppets are unfinished.)

    “I just want people to know they can do this themselves. I want people to see (Creature), and I want them to touch it. I want the show to be over and want people to run around with the puppets and try to do it,” North says. “Put your hands on it. Go home and do it. Art is a prompt.” 

     

    With less than two months until the first show, where have the last two years gone? There are sets to build, puppets to finish, a ticketing website to finalize, meetings and spreadsheets and a bit of oh-my-god-what-have-we-done? disbelief. Executing this idea, it’s a slog. But a fun slog, because it’s monsters and puppets and a classic tale that will spook and romance those willing to take the ride. “Rock & Roll Puppetry for Adults and Brave Children,” the poster reads.

    Perhaps actors reading lines would’ve been tidier. But tame and easy was never the plan. “Puppetry is a license that allows people to consider stories and themes they might otherwise deny themselves access to,” Bramel says. “Puppets also leave space for interpretation, just like the novel Frankenstein. You can hang your personal mythology on the story. What are your fears? Environmental disaster? Fascism? Oppression? All these evils are human-made.”

    A few months ago, Bramel and North learned they were finalists for a Jim Henson Foundation grant. In December, they’ll learn if they’ve won $3,000. That money will help them groom and grow their show for next year, a pivotal year for Creature as it will be the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s book.

    When Bramel straps on Creature’s frame on that opening night, he thinks, a sense of relief will follow. Two years and, finally, the monster will stagger about onstage, seven feet of flailing Frankenstein born from daydreams and hobbies. “After that first performance we should know whether we should be proud or not,” Bramel says, smiling. “It’s a weird, different thing to wrap your head around, and I have faith it’s going to be great.”

    Creature: A Wretched Frankenstein Adaptation will have performances on October 20, 21 & 27. You can buy tickets here.

    This originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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