Defying Hobbes, 'Nasty, Brutish & Short' is an uplifting cure for winter, quarantine blues—with puppets!

“Nasty, Brutish & Short” is a quarterly puppet theater cabaret hosted by Links Hall and Rough House Theater to provide artists with a space to explore and test new ideas with an audience. Presenting a virtual “Puppet Quarantine 5” on Dec. 7, "Nasty, Brutish & Short" provided a brief escape from a mundane Monday with 10 works that made my apartment feel cozier—a hearth for strange and intimate storytelling despite the virtual platform. 

This was my first “Nasty, Brutish & Short,” even though the series has been around long before performance was confined to virtual and hybrid platforms. The entire YouTube livestream was smoothly executed by Links Hall’s Giau Trong and the acts were pre-recorded with what I assumed to be live emceeing by Noah Ginex Puppet Co. With puppetry being a mix of visual art, movement and media, each work seemed to easily live in a virtual space. “Tulane,” a music video for Mr. Nick Davio by Will Bishop and Grace Needleman, featured paper puppets that slid across crayon drawings of home and school that could have passed for animation if the camera hadn’t zoomed out at the last second to reveal Needleman operating a vast array of shoe box theaters.

No two acts used the same style of storytelling, filming or even puppetry. The opening performance “Butcher Hands Up” retold Shakespeare’s goriest play, “Titus Andronicus,” through a wooden puppet butcher and the gelatinous material he continually chopped and flung towards the camera. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the same time I was muttering “gross” under my breath. “What Love Feels Like” by Kevin Michael Wesson featured real people (Rachel Poe and Anthony Santaniello) gently and intimately cuddling on the couch as different laser light patterns and hand shadows washed over them. Kimberly Cotter-Lemus’ “The Wish” gathered an assortment of puppets of all materials, into a small home theater audience to heckle Pinocchio. A sock puppet even made its way into Fugzy & Friends’ “In the Box.”

By keeping the environment casual and open for experimentation, “Nasty, Brutish and Short” built a space where I felt ready for anything as an audience member. That included Hereaclitus Vernon’s “Yell-Oh! An Opera Buffa”—an unsettling experience, where fast flashes of mucousy yellow images, sound-scaped by painful wailing created intense discomfort—fittingly inspired by the artist’s experience contracting COVID-19 back in March.

As a dance artist, I enjoyed observing how bodies manipulated the puppets and made their way into the performances. Like in “Fig: A Love Story,” where Amanda Card’s cute and quirky facial expressions brought the whole story together, or the hands that helped a little wooden puppet roll a snowball in Jabberwocky Marionettes' “Cosmic Snowball.” Or when shadow puppets danced across the screen while the manipulating bodies and hands remained invisible to the audience in Twisted Heart Puppetworks’ “Searching For Krampus.” In a different sort of showcase, you might not have even realized any sort of puppetry was involved in Aja Singletary’s “Dear Albert,” which featured Singletary enacting a physical battle with a force inside her body.

Recently, I’ve been feeling limited as a dancer, bumping into furniture any time I attempt to move. But puppetry showcases like this are a reminder of how artistic mediums can be blended to transform the average spaces to which we’re all confined at the moment. “Nasty, Brutish & Short” was a welcome taste of the beauty in the little things, the experimental things and the genuine joy of making art.