Humor involving puppets and live action, spies and parody can be dicey. It’s easy to slip right off the edge and down the slippery slope of silliness. But the creative talents who comprise Four Humors Theater in Minneapolis (back for their fourth consecutive year at the Cincinnati Fringe) have solid footing when it comes to knowing how far to push things. They make their James Bond-ian satire, You Only Live Forever Once, work in a way that’s constantly amusing, varied and entertaining. The script, written by the company’s artistic director, Jason Ballweber, is being presented in the white-box venue at 1423 Vine St.
I’m not a big fan of puppets, but these are done with such tongue-in-cheek amateurism as well as slapstick comedy, it’s hard not to be infected by the goofiness. The company’s motto, “We make the beautiful foolish, and the foolish beautiful,” is in full force in this premiere production which will next appear in the Minnesota Fringe in August.
It’s a spy show told by some very arch live actors and a handful of cardboard cutouts and sock puppets. Secret Agent Dave Johnson’s nine-lived nemesis, Agent X, has a cat nose and whiskers and speaks constantly in puns about “purr-fect” plots and “cat-and-mouse” games. Johnson’s lovely spy partner (or is she working for the bad guys?), Femme Fatale is a composite of all the Bond girls you’ve ever seen, and we’re offered a litany of new ones, too, by the way. I wish I could name the four actors, but no program was provided and no details are available on Four Humors’ website. Trust me: They’re masters of physical comedy and verbal wit as well as puppetry.
The fast-paced, 50-minute piece is endlessly inventive and clever, with actors holding two-dimensional guns and champagne flutes, and fistfights that start between puppets then burst forth with actors from the wings of the puppet stage. We also are treated to parodies of opening and closing credits a la what you’ll remember from any Bond film you’ve ever seen.
Ballweber’s writing pushes it even further, full of groaning puns and fast-talking, clichéd dialogue. There’s a giant game — “I like to call it ‘Mousetrap,’ as does Hasbro,” the villain tells us with a raised eyebrow — large enough to disrupt the G20 Summit and bring an end to civilization as we know it. There are secret agents, double agents, deadly lasers, immortality serums, car chases, plane chases, submarine chases, each one crazier and more ridiculous than the previous — every element you’ve ever marveled at in a Bond film is present and poked fun at.
If all this sounds absurd, well it is. That’s exactly what Four Humors intends, and I daresay that’s what audiences have come to expect. You Only Live Forever Once is a hilarious entertainment.