Titan of Trash

As a puppeteer, political satirist, performance artist and even as host to a long-running Saturday morning kid's science show, Paul Zaloom puts the most unusual things to work for his art. He's a guy who lets nothing go to waste. In his shows he animates tossed away toys, tools, appliances, hand and rod puppets and trash. That is a LOT of trash--sometimes entire stages full of trash. He also uses one of those overhead projectors from grade school to create the coolest cheapo special effects you've ever seen. Anything can be put to good use in his hands. Once you've seen what shaving cream, Jell-O, foam rubber and body parts can do when manipulated and projected overhead, you'll never view the world in quite the same way.

And seeing the world we live in differently is at the heart of his work. Through the years his shows such as Zaloominations, Creature From the Blue Zaloom and Fruit of Zaloom have explored political commentary, societal evolution, the pollution of our ecosystems and the hazards of getting through the day. He does all this while being among the funniest and most entertaining "performance artists" around. Evidently the punny derivatives of his name have run dry, because Sick but True is the title of his current show, which will be making a mess of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts this Saturday.

In a recent interview, Zaloom explained just what to expect from a Sick but True evening at the theater. The program consists of three parts. "My Civilization" is performed on the aforementioned overhead projector. He describes it as "that stodgy educational device that we all remember from school. I transform it into a live-action animated cartoon using found objects, transparencies, wire, colored water and whatever junk you can think of for a festival of cheap special effects." The piece itself is about Zaloom's "complicity and responsibility in things about our civilization that I despise." He wants to blame "us" not "them." He tries to point the finger, "but it keeps curving right back at me." As an example he refers to the cycle of "dumping refuse into the ocean, eating fish, using the toilet, dumping refuse. . . ." This absurdity and others lead to questioning "the moral implications of being alive." "Phood" puts Zaloom into full frontal consumer-advocate commando mode. Through the use of industry promotional materials, U.S. government studies and the actual things we eat, he presents an object lesson in nutritional technology gone berserk. The third part of the evening is his newest piece, "The Dream," which he describes as "a hyperactive use of found objects to achieve a surreal dreamlike quality."

For all the heavy-sounding seriousness of the subject matter, the aim of his presentation is a good laugh. "I'm just interested in making people laugh about stuff that's gonna kill 'em." He finds that, "It's most interesting when the issues you deal with in humor are very profound or tragic. Then the laughs have a sort of resonance that I like . . . you laugh and then say 'eeeew,' and it just plain makes you think. It's interesting to me to stimulate myself or an audience to think about different things and the endless connections between different things." His personal favorite quote comes from the esteemed monologist Lord Buckley who said, "The duty of humor is to make people laugh at things in such a way that they don't die before they get killed."

Zaloom's unique style of performance has evolved over nearly 30 years. His career began with Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppets Theatre in the early '70s. He continues his association with that famed New England institution to this day, often serving as ringmaster at the summertime presentations of Schumann's Resurrection Circus. His numerous solo shows have brought mayhem and messiness around the world. He's fond of performing key bits of the show in the local languages. Thus he has been able to Zaloominate audiences across Europe, where the puppetry tradition isn't seen as some quaint children's entertainment. Notable international appearances for this Guggenheim Fellowship award winner have included Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Les Semaines de la Marionette in Paris and the Union Internationale de la Marionette in Dresden, Germany. On home turf he has received grants from the NEA and the Jim Henson Foundation. In 1988 he received the Obie award for excellence in an off-Broadway production for his one-man show, The House of Horror.

--David Gofstein

Paul Zaloom performs Sick but True at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 1, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. Tickets are $20. 480-994-2787 (SCA), 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).

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David Gofstein