In one scene of Bury Me Under I-5, three homeless characters argue about the phonetics of the English language. One insists on watching only foreign movies. He tried watching Petty Women but Julia Roberts in English was too grating. The other corrects him: it's Pretty Woman. "The first time I got hauled in for vagrancy," muses the third, "I thought they said vacancy. I was like, 'What, like I'm some Motel 6?'"
The scene’s typical of the local playwright, Scot Augustson: topical, reflective, playful. Not too unusual, theatrically speaking. The only twist? The characters aren’t played by people. Instead, the show’s entirely acted out by shadow puppets.
Adult puppetry is pretty niche, even for Seattle. Still, Augustson's group, Sgt. Rigsby and His Amazing Silhouettes, managed to carve out a space for their craft in the city's theater scene. The shadow puppetry group has been operating in some form or another for 23 years after founders Augustson and Stephen Hando put on their first show at the Rebar. Since then, the duo have produced these local shadow puppetry shows, each with varying degrees of humor and drama.
In recent years, the troupe found a home at the Theatre Off Jackson—a small, quirky venue holed up by a pho restaurant in the International District. The theater's foyer resembles the inside of an adobe house and stringed lights hang above the audience seats in its tiny performance space. It's a rare place that regularly garners audiences looking for serious puppetry through annual "puppet slams." Small as it may be, the theater's nighttime performances are usually packed with regulars or people just looking for something a little different (cautiously prepped with a drink in hand from the theater's bar). Most shows cross sex jokes with somber themes, like Augustson's. They've hosted past Sgt. Rigsby shows, like their 2015 run of The Ballad of Karla Fox.
But for most, puppets don’t exist outside the realm of Jim Henson or street performance, much less with an emphasis on dark drama. It’s why one the show’s four voice actors, Jordi Montes, has to explain herself whenever friends find out about her latest gig. “They automatically think Sesame Street, sock puppets,” says Montes, who voices more than 20 characters for the show. As someone only recently introduced to shadow puppetry herself, she scrambles to explain the spirit behind Bury Me Under I-5's startling dark humor and depth.
The shows typically unfold like this: voice actors sit at a long table with mics and sound effect equipment (bells, planks of wood to knock, things like that), much like the cast of an old radio show. Center stage sits a framed, illuminated scrim where Augustson commandeers animal cut-outs as lines are read. It’s a simple format, and one that Augustson and Hando initially found attractive as it didn’t require costuming their actors.
Sgt. Rigsby’s plays often examine darker themes, like abusive relationships and trauma, through serious drama imbued with raunchy humor. It's more than one would expect of funny voices and animal puppets, but Augustson says that it’s a purposeful shock. "That’s actually one of my strategies," he says. "It’s like it’s humor, it’s talking animals, and then it kind of surprises you when you… get caught up in a way that you didn’t expect to."
This time proves no different. Despite one of its protagonists being a chicken with a comically shrill voice, Bury Me Under I-5 tells the story of two characters and the circumstances that bring them to a homeless encampment under I-5 in Seattle. It's a topic Augustson says he's been yearning to address through the shadow puppets that he himself cuts.
Beyond that, Brace Evans—another actor like Montes who was green to live voice acting prior to Bury Me Under I-5—says the shadow puppets are more than tools for shock. If you look around Seattle, you won’t see much of a contemporary shadow puppetry scene, despite its history stretching back thousands of years. Few consistently dedicate themselves to what's often disregarded as a childish craft. “It’s kind of debunking the idea of what you might expect from what appears to be a vaudeville puppet-style show,” he says. “So an audience member that gets to experience this will see something they rarely ever get to see.”
Bury Me Under I-5
Feb 15–Mar 10, Theatre Off Jackson, $20