When the Ashland-based puppet troupe Puppeteers for Fears last swung through the mid-valley in October, company director Josh Gross said the group was at a crossroads: Was it time for the group to take the leap toward becoming a full-time operation or should it scale back to a more limited model?
The answer to that question should be apparent Saturday night, when Puppeteers for Fears, Oregon's premiere puppet troupe specializing in full-length musical comedy science-fiction horror spectacles (all right, Oregon's only puppet troupe specializing in full-length musical comedy science-fiction horror spectacles) returns to the stage of the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis.
The troupe is dreaming big.
The stop in Corvallis, featuring a retooled version of the group's "Cattle Mutilation: The Musical," is part of an 18-city tour that takes Puppeteers for Fears to new audiences. The group is working on long-range plans to open its own black-box theater in the Ashland area.
And "Cattle Mutilation" itself is a big step up for the group, Gross said in a telephone interview this week as the troupe was getting ready to take the show on the road.
"This show is really a pretty big step up in terms of production values," he said.
But the show still proudly boosts its Northwest roots.
The mystery that starts the play in motion involves the cattle mutilations mentioned in the title: A rancher and his son are trying to get to the bottom of a number of mutilations on their property. The father thinks Bigfoot is the culprit. The son believes UFOs are to blame. "Everything goes really sideways from there," Gross said. Eventually, many of the characters are abducted by extraterrestrials and subjected to oddball medical experiments on board a UFO.
The group's promotional materials describe the show as a blend of the low-rent cult movie favorite "Plan 9 From Outer Space," paired with the bawdy puppet comedy of the stage show "Avenue Q," all performed with a live rock band on the wings of the stage. (This would be a good place to remind readers that although the show uses puppets, it is definitely not a children's show.)
Adding Bigfoot to the mix was a no-brainer, Gross said: "We wanted to have something that had more of a local flavor to it. ... We wanted a play that people in the Northwest would feel like it was a documentary."
The show is a somewhat expanded version of the troupe's very first production, first staged a few years ago, but there have been additions: For one thing, the musical now starts with what Gross called a "happy village song," the sort of tune that sets the stage for events to come and introduces its characters. ("Belle," the opening number from the Disney musical "Beauty and the Beast," is a good example of this sort of song.)
There's another important difference that sets apart this production from the earlier version, Gross said: "At the time, we didn't really know what we were doing. ... It was time to bring the show back and bring it in the production it deserves."
The show features five puppeteers (Reece Bredl, Hunter Prutch, Lauren Taylor, Alex Giorgi and Forrest Gilpin) and Gross said they have no hesitation about improvising: He said that material first dreamed up by the performers has added roughly a half-hour to the show's length from when rehearsals first began. And the improvisations continue: One cue as to whether you're seeing a brand-new improvised bit will be to watch Gross' face as he plays drums — if he's cracking up, chances are you're seeing something fresh.
The music is performed by Medford-area band Derek Deon and the Vaughns, and features Deon on guitar, Dylan James Vaughn on bass, Helen-Thea Thomas on keyboards and Gross. The band will perform a brief set before the play begins.
Saturday's performance marks the third recent Corvallis performance by Puppeteers for Fears: The first show, "Cthulhu: the Musical!" was an adaptation of the works of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The show that played at the Majestic last October, "Robopocalypse," started as an adaptation of Daniel Wilson's novel of the same name, but when the troupe couldn't land the rights, Gross kept the title and came up with another original musical. Both performances drew big crowds to the Majestic, and it's not unusual these days for the troupe to draw sold-out crowds.
"Cattle Mutilation" shares a theme with "Robopocalypse," Gross said: "As weird as it is, it's about people trying to figure out how to get along with their kids. ... It's a universal theme. People can relate to it. When you're doing a puppet monster story, you need something for people to relate to."