2022 Festival Archive: Andy Manjuck + Dorothy James
Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James:
January 25-27, 2022
Chopin Theatre Mainstage
Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
Scholarship and Resources
Bill’s 44th: The Life of the Party¹
And Essay by Ana Díaz Barriga
On January 26, Bill ripped down the previous day’s calendar page upon his return home from work only for it to reveal that it was his forty-fourth birthday. He excitedly began to prepare for the guests who would arrive to celebrate with him, setting up balloons and party hats, laying crudités on the table, and preparing an extremely spiked punch. He poured himself a drink in a plastic cup that he wrote his name on as he awaited his guests’ arrival and time began to pass. In the Chopin Theater in Chicago, a full house waited alongside Bill for Bill’s 44th.
Despite his abstract bald head, mustache and middle-aged belly—which set Bill and me apart in terms of age and gender—and the fact that I could see his two puppeteers beside him, Bill’s situation and insecurities struck a chord with me, as they seemed to do with many other audience members. His eagerness to impress and play it cool were evident. He practiced posing when there was a knock on the door. He tried to look casual after minutes of incessant staring from the door to his watch and back. I could understand his desire to be liked and shared in his fear of loneliness. Bill’s puppeteers (Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James) stood beside him, their hands taking the place of Bill’s hands; Manjuck controlled Bill’s head, and his legs became Bill’s. While the puppeteers’ presence might have revealed Bill’s nonexistence, his emotions felt real and so did my empathy.
The knock on the door left Bill with a package containing a VHS tape. He approached the player and pushed the tape inside. The VHS regurgitated the tape, time and time again until the reel got caught inside the machine. As Bill tried to recover the tape, the phone rang. Wrapped in reel, Bill picked up the receiver, and the whole device fell from the wall. In his frustrated resignation, Bill approached the spiked punch he had prepared to serve himself another drink and suddenly had an idea: He painted a smiley face on one of his balloons. But as the balloon floated up, it flipped over, and the smiley face turned into a frown. Could it be a coincidence that these objects were contributing to the collapse of Bill’s celebration?
Through the malfunctioning objects in Bill’s world, I saw in play theories of things—of what makes objects things and of the life that exists within them. I could see the performance as an activation of Jane Bennett’s “vibrant matter” (2010), which suggests that objects have a vibrancy or life independent of human uses and interpretations, or Bill Brown’s “thing theory” (2001) that explores the essence of things as they are beyond the agency we humans might assign them. While these theories’ abstractions were made tangible by the conspiring objects spoiling Bill’s party and bringing his world to life, I’ll focus on how this performance opened up my understanding of Gerhard Marx’s “functional malfunction.” In Bill’s world, I could see how objects that cease to fulfill their expected function force the subject to renegotiate their relationship with them, as Marx describes (2009: 229-36). The objects’ physical characteristics are suddenly revealed and, as they transcend their functionality, these objects become things. These things have personalities; they exert their desires on the world, and in their refusal to function as intended, we can imagine these things are out to ruin our lives.² So, the VHS tape that won’t play, the telephone that won’t be answered, and the balloon that won’t cheer up Bill are now agents contributing to Bill’s disappointing celebration.
Assigning intentions to things anthropomorphizes them (Marx, 2009: 236). Bill continued to anthropomorphize the world around him as he assigned intentions to objects that hadn’t initially chosen to malfunction. Thus, he painted a smiley face onto a piece of carrot after his failed attempt at befriending the balloon. He served the carrot a drink and wrote its name on a plastic cup: Cary. Bill took advantage of the aliveness that objects acquire when we look past their intended function to provide himself with friends with whom to celebrate. Transforming the objects around him into the guests at his party seemed strange at first, but ultimately Bill and I weren’t doing such different things; we were both believing in the life of objects: him, animating the balloons and crudités, and me, buying into the life given to him by his puppeteers.
The slow build of Bill’s environment allowed creator-puppeteers Manjuck and James to coax audiences into coming along when Bill’s world exploded into full absurdity. So when Cary wobbled through the door of the apartment as a human-sized figure puppeteered by Jon Riddleberger, the audience laughed in delight. A bunch of balloons showed up to populate the party, each with their own facial expression. But Bill’s world, with its lively objects full of personality, is a projection of Bill’s subjectivity (Marx, 2009: 236) and, therefore, of his insecurities. Soon, the balloon he is flirting with ditches him to make out with another balloon, and Bill ends up on the losing side of a fight against a band of vengeful inflatables. Things get out of control when things get out of control. It is not only that things have failed to function as intended; Bill has also failed in his attempt to relate to them.
When the VHS tape reappears intact on the table, Bill plays it. His TV opens up, turning into a small stage that lets the audience see the video presented as a play-within-a-play. We see years’ worth of Bill’s birthday celebrations enacted by a small direct-manipulation puppet of himself. Later, this version of Bill escapes from the TV and chases him in the dark, tormenting him with the pitter-patter of its tiny footsteps, crawling on walls and moving at disturbing speeds. Bill has to come to terms with himself and with the history that has brought him here, to this empty apartment and to this lonesome party. Only after this realization is Bill able to see us, the audience members who had been in his apartment all along. Perhaps it was unsurprising that everyone joined in to sing Bill happy birthday when he lit the candles on his cake, but I couldn’t help noting that no one hesitated to say Bill’s name as we sang. Through this malfunctioning party, Bill moved us to believe that he wasn’t merely something, but someone.
¹ An earlier version of this text appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Puppetry Journal.
² Although I am primarily thinking about Marx’s description of this phenomenon as I write this, Bill Brown (2001: 4) posits similar ideas about how the thingness in objects becomes visible when they stop working.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1-22.
Marx, Gerhard. “A Matter of Life and Death: The Function of Malfunction in the Work of Handspring Puppet Company.” Handspring Puppet Company, edited by Jane Taylor, David Krut Publishing, 2009, pp. 225-49.
About the Performance
January 25-26, 2022
1543 W. Division St. in Wicker Park
The streamers are strung, the punch has been spiked, and the cake is just waiting to be eaten. Now all Bill has to do is wait for his guests to arrive. But waiting is hard. RSVP now for Bills’ 44th, an original comedy by Brooklyn-based artists Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James, two puppeteers who together create one very worried protagonist. Many styles of puppetry, raucous balloons, and a cheeky piece of crudité all collide in this “poignant, comic puppet play…as much about the ingenuity of the mind as it is about loneliness.” (New York Times Critic’s Pick)
With special support from Cheryl Henson