By Stanford Friedman
Even though it has been in the works since 2018, Bill’s 44th is a puppet parable with a pandemic pang. It is the story of a man, stuck at home, silently seeking to ease his loneliness and encroaching mortality with the help of a few stiff drinks. After fueling himself from a bowl of spiked punch, and before ultimately finding self-acceptance, Bill, lacking in eyeballs but with no shortage of belly fat, must come to terms with inanimate objects turned animate, timepieces moving too slowly, and years flying by all too fast. Any previously quarantined theatergoer can surely relate. Creators and chief puppeteers Andy Manjuck & Dorothy James serve up a production that is alternately charming and eerie, grounded and metaphysical. Following four joyfully live performances at Dixon Place, it is now available to stream on-demand through June 15.
Things look pretty good for Bill at the start as he dances around his house, setting the table for his own birthday soirée. Booze, balloons and crudités are at the ready. But as the minutes tick by, it becomes clear that none of his guests are coming. A few text message greetings arrive but he accidentally trashes his phone, and he is decidedly less jaunty, and more juiced, by the time he intentionally trashes his wall clock. In lieu of actual friends, Bill bestows life upon a couple helium balloons, drawing happy faces on their latex skins then giving them a dunk in that baptismal punch bowl. He also takes a particular liking to a carrot stick (Jon Riddleberger) and it turns out the feeling is mutual.
Balloons can be unruly though and soon a large bunch magically crash the party, engaging in a kind of haunted dream ballet behind composer Eamon Fogarty’s fine, emotive background music. Bill temporarily loses control of his surroundings and has to fight his way back, with little help from his carrot compadre. This all leads up to the evening’s best sequence, a set piece, or in this case a tv-set piece, staged inside Bill’s jumbo-size television/vhs player. He slips an old tape into the hunk of antiquated technology and suddenly it explodes open, revealing not tubes and wires, but a miniature Bill puppet, perhaps four decades younger, celebrating a birthday with the gift of a toy plane. We then watch as birthdays come and go for the wee lad, he grows up, grows hair, gains friends; stops growing, loses hair, loses friends. The stringy moustache that is the most notable feature of Bill at 44, floats down to the younger Bill’s face and lands under his nose like a leech settling in for the duration.
To say that Bill is a split personality is to mean that he is embodied by two puppeteers. Ms. James controls his right arm while Manjuck manipulates his left. This makes for some entertaining bouts of coordination, especially when Bill flips a liquor bottle from one hand to the other. To say that Bill’s supporting cast is disarming is to mean that some literally have no arms and that others are beguiling yet capable of some creepy antics, notably a small, demonized version of Bill that darts and attacks like a horror film creature. There is an additional layer to the play that tries to squeeze the action into the structure of a TV sitcom, complete with an “Applause” sign. It’s not very necessary and rather easily ignored. Bill’s warped sense of reality is the only framework we need.
Puppeteers: Andy Manjuck, Dorothy James, and Jon Riddleberger; Composer: Eamon Fogarty.
Stage Manager: Taryn Uhe; Lighting Designer: Jordan Wiggins; Creative Producer: Leigh Walter; Dramaturg: Helena Pennington; Consulting Director: Nick O’Leary; Technical Director: Peter Russo; Director of Photography: Ben Smith. A Dixon Place Commissioned Production. Available to stream on demand from June 7-15, Tickets, $12-$34, can be purchased online at https://ci.ovationtix.com/35526/production/1042830?performanceId=10658392. Running time: 1 hour.