BY MARTIN DENTON (of indietheaternow.com) | I remember vividly the moment I knew Kevin Augustine was a genius. It was a sultry August afternoon in 1999. I was sitting in the audience in the now-defunct Collective Unconscious space on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, partaking of yet another show in the third annual New York International Fringe Festival: “Big Top Machine.”
Kevin was on stage, the lone human actor in a play that had a cast of dozens; all his co-stars were puppets. His human character was a guy named Stan, a fellow who found his true self while working in a circus as “Ramsey the Flying Man.” At this particular moment I’m thinking of, Stan was in a bar, having a drink with his boss, Frank the Ringmaster. Frank was portrayed by a puppet, manipulated and voiced by Kevin. We could clearly see Kevin’s hand up Frank’s back, working his little machinery, and we could clearly see Kevin’s lips move every time Frank talked. And yet, I could swear (still would, in fact) that Frank was alive.
That’s Kevin’s gift — the ability to endow the puppets who share the stage with him with something that feels eerily like sentience, like a soul. It’s not just the painstakingly detailed movements he’s able to provide his non-human co-stars that make them seem human. It’s something deeper and more magical and much harder to explain than that. But if you’ve ever seen Kevin Augustine in any of his shows, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you haven’t, well, you’re in luck. Kevin will be back in New York City twice this season, after an absence of five years. In February 2014, Dixon Place will host the NYC premiere of “Hobo Grunt Cycle,” a work that Kevin has been developing for most of those five years, in places as diverse as Holland, Brazil, San Francisco and Philadelphia. And before that, from November 14-24, La MaMa will be presenting Kevin’s newest show, “The God Projekt,” at their Club space, as part of their Puppet Series.
Augustine’s Lone Wolf Tribe to debut two new works
THE GOD PROJEKT
Conceived by Kevin Augustine
Written and directed by Kevin Augustine
and Edward Einhorn
Presented by the La MaMa Puppet Series
November 14-24, Thurs.-Sat. at 9pm, Sunday at 5:30pm
At The Club Theatre, at La MaMa
74 E. Fourth St. (btw. Bowery & Second Ave.)
For tickets ($18, $15 for students/seniors), call 212-475-7710 or visit lamama.org
“The God Projekt” is inspired by an earlier Augustine opus called “Bride.” In it, he considers the task of creation and the lot of the creator by portraying The Creator — God Himself, that is. The character of God that Kevin and his co-author/co-director Edward Einhorn have imagined in this show is indeed resolutely male, sort of a gruffer, more rough-hewn version of the George Burns God from the late ‘70s. “The God Projekt” was conceived as a solo show, although there is now a helper on stage during one highly technical bit. Plus, Kevin says, “we’re playing with the relationship of the collaborators within the staging of the piece,” and so Einhorn will have a vocal and visible, though offstage, presence as well. Otherwise it’s just
Kevin as God and a whole passel of his creations.
Trying to pin down exactly what Kevin Augustine does is fairly difficult. By training, he’s an actor (he studied at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts). But as a boy, inspired by his grandma, he learned how to make puppets. And when, while immersed in a career as a solo performance artist, he wanted some companions on stage with him, he decided to build them himself.
Usually, they’re made from foam rubber and crafted to be handled Bunraku-style, via rods controlling their arms, legs or other limbs.
In his shows, Kevin operates the leading puppet characters himself, while puppeteers — usually shrouded in black garments — manipulate the supporting cast members. Kevin generally voices all of the characters, and as I’ve said, there is no pretense or artifice in this. He’s not a ventriloquist, out to fool the audience into believing sound is coming from this or that location on the stage. No, Kevin’s a one-man ensemble — breathing life and not just words into the many roles he plays, but also convincing his audience that all the moving and speaking beings on stage are alive.
Kevin writes the plays he performs. For Lone Wolf Tribe, the company he founded in 1997 to present his unique puppet works, there have been six full-length productions to date. “Once Vaudeville” introduced him to New York audiences in the 1998 FringeNYC festival. “Big Top Machine” followed a year later and won him the Fringe NYC Overall Excellence Award. “10” was featured in FringeNYC in 2000. This was the first of Kevin’s works to explore the relationship between creator and creation, something that would be examined in a much grander scale in “Bride,” which played at PS122 in 2008.
In between came the work I would consider to be, so far, his masterpiece: “Animal,” about a troubled young man and his spirit guide, a “five-eighths human genetically altered test subject” named Eugene. In “Animal,” Kevin traces Eugene’s growth from a baby to maturity, creating numerous puppets at different points in Eugene’s sad, unselfish life — one generously lent to a human who may or may not deserve it. This play explores subjects as diverse yet fundamental as cloning and genetic mutations, shamanism and animal rights. I was so impressed and moved by it that I asked Kevin if we could include it in New York Theatre Experience’s anthology of new indie theater, “Plays and Playwrights 2005,” even though it’s quite unlike any other play I’ve ever published, in that it’s written for one actor and many puppets. Kevin, happily, said yes. (Both “Big Top Machine” and “Animal” are published on Indie Theater Now, and both “Hobo Grunt Cycle” and “The God Projekt” are targeted for publication there next year.)
I will never forget the night we launched “Plays and Playwrights 2005” at Baruch Center for the Performing Arts. Kevin had agreed to do a scene from “Animal” as part of our presentation that night. I went backstage at one point looking for him — and found, alone in his dressing room, two of the Eugene puppets, sitting, quite naturally and humanly, together at a table. Waiting, so it appeared, for the master to come by and give them life.
So now, happily, we have two new Kevin Augustine plays coming to New York in the space of four months.
I am eager to see these latest of Kevin’s plays. He describes “Hobo Grunt Cycle” as “a war and peace meditation with life-sized puppets, colliding connections between wounded soldiers, illegal dog fighting and the hierarchies of circus performers and military personnel.” And “The God Projekt,” he says, is “a raucous investigation into the mysteries of the universe,” featuring “bloody puppetry” and “Catskill-style stand-up comedy.” I interviewed Kevin recently about both shows in a podcast that you can find at Indie Theater Now’s iTunes channel.
Kevin’s obsessions are rooted in his own deep compassion and humanity, and in the strange and wonderful meta-ness of his particular art. Watching them unfurl on stage in his unique, extraordinary style is the great gift that he makes to his audience. Those in search of what puppet theatre can do — and more generally, what theater can do — are about to have two relatively rare opportunities to see one of our true American Masters at work. I advise you not to miss them.
Martin Denton has been covering the NYC theater scene for nearly two decades. His current project is Indie Theater Now (indietheaternow.com), launched in 2011, which is a digital theater library where people can discover plays from the contemporary indie theater scene.