Straight shooter: Puppet show explores gun violence, excessive fear in America

digital puppet
Got no strings: The digital puppet production “Fear in the Western World,” explores how gun violence and fear affect two parents searching for their abducted child.
Photo by Maria Baranova

This show is a straight shooter!

A new high-tech puppet show blends horror movie tropes and Greek mythology to discuss gun violence in the United States. “Fear in the Western World,” opening as part of the Exponential Festival, at the Target Margin Theater on Jan. 5, follows two parents who trek through catacombs hidden beneath under their suburban home in search for their abducted daughter — and who come across mythical, gun-wielding creatures along the way, according to the show’s co-creator. 

“There’s a Greek slant on their adventure as they go on,” said David Commander, who wrote and directed the production with artist Rob Ramirez. “The whole performance is presided over by Janus, the god of transitions and passageways.”

The play’s spooky tunnels make the show feel like a horror movie, Commander said, but its creatures are as frightened as they frightening. The protagonists, and the catacomb dwellers they come upon, cling to their guns for a sense of protection —  often injuring each other in shootouts — even if there is no real danger, Commander noted. 

“They’re using guns because they’re scared,” he said. “They’re scared when they’re safe; they’re scared when they’re being threatened. They’re just frightened.” 

Commander created “Fear in the Western World” in response to the many mass shootings in the US since the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012. Each tragedy involved a cycle of violence, media coverage, and political posturing that, to Commander, felt like an endless carnival ride. 

“There’s something kind of like a haunted house ride or a rollercoaster where you can’t get away,” Commander noted. “You can’t escape it. You’re in for the ride.” 

The show mimics the sense of anxiety that Commander believes plagues the country, and that contributes to the cycle of fear and gun violence. But despite its dark subject matter, the show is not completely bleak, he said. 

“It has a very optimistic ending,” he promised. 

The show will feature several high-tech puppets with tablets for heads, with distorted images of human faces on their screens. The puppeteers will move the puppets with rods, and change their expressions by using a video game controller. The puppeteers will remain visible to the audience, allowing viewers to see how the show is made, Commander said. 

“There’s no attempt to trick the audience,” he said. “The audience has a choice in what to focus on.” 

“Fear in the Western World” at the Target Margin Theater [232 52nd St. between Second and Third avenues in Sunset Park, (718) 398–3095, www.targetmargin.org]. Jan 5–19; Wed–Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 3 pm. $25 ($18 students and seniors).