THRILLING UPDATE: Fifty Shades of Felt has been extended! See the end of this post to order tickets for added shows on December 5, 6, and 7.
The setup: Nearly Naked Theatre and All Puppet Players aren't saying what bestselling books Fifty Shades of Felt is inspired by, but we know. And you know. And you don't have to read them to enjoy the show, which is a huge relief because I wouldn't wish the former experience on our nastiest readers. (I thought I should read the novels so I'd know whether it helps -- and I'm now desperately trying to redeem that part of my life by making something entertaining out of it. Stay tuned.)
The execution: Part of this show is a surprisingly faithful and straightforward telling of the first third and a little of the second third of the love story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. As puppeteered and acted by Devon Nickel and Amber Luallen, the two young lovers are actually more sympathetic than their creator (E L James, a.k.a. Erika Leonard, a.k.a. Snowqueens Icedragon, who, let's be fair, did not ask for all this notoriety to happen) was able to depict them on the page, which is not really even a little surprising at all.
Commenting hysterically around the edges is writer/director and All Puppets honcho Shaun Michael McNamara, through the other characters, including Ana's Inner Goddess (a hairy fuchsia thing) and Subconscious (a panda. And Ana's dad looks like a Pig in Space. I'm so glad the companies practiced inclusive puppet casting). In any case, Ana's/James' narrative voice has been minimized, and that alone makes the play super-tolerable and often amusing.
And, as a bonus, the script does its best to make the goings-on as filthy as one might hope, as opposed to as tame as they originally turned out to be (damn you, books!). While it isn't the raunchiest play or even the raunchiest puppet show I've ever seen, it drives home (ahem) the pandering, somewhat gratuitous nature of the tiny sprinkle of BDSM it does contain. Between consenting adult puppets. Thank you, Zorba's.
Since All Puppets uses the Avenue Q/Sesame Street style of puppet that typically ends at the waist, creativity is necessary to depict some sex acts. Such creativity is in abundance. Comic homages to romantic films and goofily self-conscious references to the nature of theater and puppetry abound, as well.
I'm also impressed with the performers' technical proficiency. The puppeteers who operate Inner Goddess and Subconscious -- characters who never leave their alcove at one side of the stage -- somehow operated other puppets several yards away from time to time without drawing any attention to the fact that their main puppets must have been left "empty" at least once or twice.
Though all it takes to get laughs with much of James' dialogue is to deliver it exactly as it was written, it's the extra touches that really make this show work, including a segment in which Ana teaches herself about the world of kink not by using Wikipedia, but by asking the audience. I can just about guarantee you will learn something. (Especially if you raise your hand. But not raising it will not save you.)
The verdict: When something bursts upon our cultural landscape to be met with the fervor that greeted the Fifty Shades trilogy (let alone the work that inspired it), I take the position that it's productive to check out why that is, even if it's simply bloody awful. You'll learn something about at least some of your fellow human beings. Even it's something you didn't want to know.
And how can you not want to see an all-puppet version of clunky, mild erotica? You know you do, and the bonus is that you won't have to read it while you're waiting more than a year for the movie. If you already have, this will help you forgive yourself. Remember what Ana said, over and over and over: It's only just not painful.
Fifty Shades of Felt continues through Saturday, December 7, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Tickets are $24 but may rise in price as demand increases. Order tickets here; call 602-254-2151 to inquire about student and senior discounts.
Before returning to California, All Puppet Players will also present Top Gun: Live, Abridged & Completely Underfunded at Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box space in Mesa from January 24 through February 8; click here for details.