UTD’s puppet theater gets weird with ‘Doom McCoy’

Originally published in The Dallas Morning News.

Despite any initial misgivings I might have had going to a puppet show on a Friday night, Doom McCoy and the Death Nugget had plenty of charm and absurdity to draw me in well before curtain call.

Billed as a mystical puppet western, the show premiered Feb. 19 at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Dallas-based director Justin Locklear, who is also an actor and a graduate of Baylor University’s theater program, said the show was partly inspired by his love of Western films.

“I love Westerns — the mythos and the nostalgia,” Locklear said. “I think that there is an enchantment that is associated with them, and I think there are certain tropes that exist in the storylines that people get into.”

The performance is far from any kind of Western or puppet show I’ve ever seen.

Doom McCoy follows the journey of Texas ranch hand Doom McCoy as he discovers his unfortunate ability to move through space and time.

On his way back from town, Doom realizes he’s relived the events of his day. In trying to figure out what’s happening, Doom encounters a medicine man, a snake-oil salesman and even Satan disguised as the madam of a brothel on the outskirts of town. (Heads up: “puppet show” doesn’t necessarily equate to “for-kids” in this case)

Chatting with the actors before their Friday performance, I found out that many of them thought interpreting their acting abilities through these inanimate objects was the toughest part of the job.

Participating in community theater since sixth grade, student-actress Micheille Salazar said she’s been performing her whole life, but had never worked with puppets before Doom McCoy.

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be,” she said. “How easy it is to perform as your person and to get across emotions, feelings, the jokes and punch lines because it’s easy to communicate what we want. With the puppet, everything has to be exaggerated.”

Salazar, an arts and performance sophomore at UTD, says it’s also physically tiring holding the puppets upright while manipulating their bodies.

The actors are actually doing quite a bit of extensive blocking throughout the show: moving platforms around the stage, positioning props and bringing out set pieces.

I came into the show believing my job as a viewer was to ignore the puppeteers. A bit of the pessimist, I thought the actors were failing to make themselves as invisible as possible in the beginning.

But as the show goes on, I realized that it has a bit of bite to it. The actors are very aware of how absurd and mildly awkward the ordeal is, but that’s what makes it good.

There’s a scene in the show where the lights dim, the actors step out, put on plastic horse head masks and proceed to give an equestrian-themed monologue. The “horse intermittence,” as the cast calls it, is bewildering and hilarious.

For all its unusual twists and turns, the show is the kind of refreshing, unanticipated experience that the “viewer who’s seen everything” is craving.

“We created a new piece which demolished expectations. We can say ‘this is our piece, it’s never been done before, but it’s being done now,” Locklear said.