Lords of the Strings

The Rapture Project's title is derived from the fundamentalist Christian belief that when death, destruction, and other inescapable ills appear on the horizon, the end of times will be upon us, and only the truly faithful believers will be "raptured" away before a bloodbath ensues. According to this belief, those who are raptured away will be literally plucked from the Earth and carried up into the heavens. Meanwhile, the nonbelievers will be left to fight out their differences at Armageddon, a historic valley north of Jerusalem. Fortunately, this gloom and doom does not extend beyond The Rapture Project's premise. The play itself is a dynamic, raucous, and fun romp down the road to hell, with a mix of both humans and puppets. The human performers open the show with an a cappella song and dance, later adding a variety of traditional and nontraditional instruments to create a catchy, handclapping rhythm. It is also a stunningly visual extravaganza, with funny marionettes and psychedelic images inspired by a 1960's designer named Jilala.

The play was written and created by its performers, members of a troupe called Great Small Works, all of whom have clearly done their research on the subject of Christian fundamentalism and its current role in American politics. There is a great wealth of information to be found within the story and in the set, which is a giant white wall spanning the length of the stage and covered in religious phrases and Christian iconography from the 1920's. In the center of this wall is a little red curtain that rises to reveal a cast of puppets going about their lives, making choices that will lead them closer to Baghdad and the climactic battle at Armageddon.

Rick, a ministries leader, is a conservatively dressed puppet leading tourists through the Grand Canyon. He is engaged to Carrie, another conservatively dressed puppet who has been seduced by his religious conviction. Their lives intersect with a typical American family: a block of four wholesome-looking puppets, literally joined at the hip, that win a trip to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Bernard, the villainous puppet, stands in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden struggling with his guilt over sending faulty body armor to the soldiers in Iraq.

Unbeknownst to him, one of his employees, a perky puppet dressed entirely in pink and named Wanda, finds her conscience and heads to Baghdad to reveal the truth about the armor. There is also a mysterious security guard puppet that is frequently and suddenly raptured away at the end of his scenes.

In one of the play's most poignant moments, the audience follows this puppet into the heavens to see firsthand what this rapturing is all about. The top of the stage opens to reveal three actors carrying the little puppet among the clouds while humming a whimsical spiritual hymn accompanied by trance-like music.

Despite the use of these colorful puppets and other childlike aspects, this play is more appropriate for adults, as well as anyone curious about the religious beliefs held by many of America's political leaders. Because of the complexity of the information that's being presented, those not familiar with Christian fundamentalism may not understand some of the story's details. But anyone wishing to learn more about the themes can attend one of the production's two talk-back sessions, which feature an impressive list of authors, artists, and scholars who explain the finer points.

Within the context of the play, Great Small Works understands the difference between teaching and preaching, educating its audience from a podium, not a soapbox. The company keeps things light, and even the powerful final battle between good and evil has a silly spin to it: a Satan puppet leads the forces of evil, while renowned writer and activist Susan Sontag embodies all that is good. With elements like these, The Rapture Project has all the right ingredients to feed your mind, tickle your funny bone, and rapture your heart.

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