Presented by Puppet Showplace Theater
By Hijinx Theatre in association with Blind SumMiT
Directed by Ben Pettitt-Wade
Fred theme music by Jonathan Dunn
Puppetry dramaturgy by Tom Espina & Giulia Innocenti
Review by Diana Lu
(Boston, MA) In Meet Fred, three-man puppetry meets meta-theater meets sociopolitical satire meets disabilities awareness. All this was beautifully woven together with tight storytelling, sharp humor, and arresting visuals. The result is one of the most engaging, funny, and touching theater experiences you will ever have.
Fred awakens onstage, atop a large movable trunk, all the possible directions his life could take drawn jumbled on the chalkboard walls behind him. As soon as he comes to life, he realizes he’s a puppet and has an existential meltdown. Director Ben Pettitt-Wade, played by director Ben Pettitt-Wade, rushes onstage to soothe—but not direct—the distraught puppet. “Do whatever you want. It’s your life, Fred,” the director says unironically, as a puppeteer turns Fred’s head to meet his gaze, tilting Fred’s face up and slightly to the left to convey confusion and heartache, resignation mingled with the tiniest grain of hope. So begins Fred’s great adventure.
I was absolutely blown away by this show. Its intention was sophisticated and meaningful, its execution flawless on so many levels. Some comedic scenes were silly and slapstick and reminded me of Family Guy at its best. The scenes of high drama externalized Fred’s emotional reality as effectively as a full production Bollywood musical number. The narrative was so clean and tight that even when the players were breaking fourth and fifth walls, the story was clear and easy to follow.
Meet Fred is explicitly a metaphor for the hardships people with disabilities face in theater and in the real world, but this is executed in a way that is neither obtrusive nor pendantic. Fred’s winsome relatability steals the show, which touches on some of the most universal of themes: free will, the human condition, love and loss, and of course, contempt for government bureaucracy. I suspect this was because it was conceived collaboratively, created by the performers with disabilities and based on their experiences working with Hijinx. True inclusion means centering and normalizing the experiences of marginalized people and supporting their creative voices, and this production, to me, was a fine example of how to do that well.
To me it worked as a great metaphor for the hardships immigrants face as well. Not only is Fred a person whose body wasn’t made for this society, he is also unfamiliar with its culture. He is being exposed to civic policies and social niceties for the first time, and trying his best to navigate all the absurdities of his new circumstances. And he is frequently forced to deal with people making assumptions about him based solely on the fact that he is a puppet.
I also greatly appreciated the production’s nod to Bunraku, the Japanese puppet theatre tradition that was the crux of the show. This was noted both in the program notes and the performance itself, in way that was clear and accurate recognition, but also understated and normalizing. So much of Asian culture used by the West is either flagrant theft or tokenizing orientalism masked as “appreciation”, often both. Seeing a positive example of respectfully borrowing from another culture in a meaningful way felt like a breath of fresh air. JK Rowling and her ilk could learn a thing or two from the fine artists of Hijinx Theatre and Blind Summit.
At the end of the show, the players held a Q&A session with the audience. Walking out, the tables in the hallway were decorated with colorful notecards, some asking us what we knew about disabilities in theater, and others filling in the knowledge. I felt like the show wasn’t an end but a means. It felt like the beginning of a dialogue, both internal and with others. Fred is a two-foot tall puppet with no face or clothing, but his movements were incredibly lifelike and emotive, the way that Rodin could evoke so much without a head or hands. It reminds me how humans are, at our core, all so very similar. We can interpret one another’s internal struggles with the barest suggestions. How is it that we are still so bad at acknowledging the humanity of those who look or act slightly different?
Additional commentary by Kitty Drexel
Meet Fred captures the subtle and not so subtle nuances of what it is to be differently abled. We, the disabled, must live according to a bullshit normalcy standard created for and by a fully-abled, BMI-balanced, white, neurotypical, straight, male, heterosexual, binary, Christian society. It’s all fun and games to celebrate differences until little Billy starts crying because he can’t play in the electric wheelchair too. It’s exhausting.
It’s only recently, say the last three years, that I’ve felt comfortable coming out as disabled to the theatre community. For a long time, I had to hide my physical disability. Casting crew, for all their great creativity on the stage, lack a certain imagination when it comes to casting atypical individuals. I wanted to perform. I did, but it became more important to represent my community. So I came out. Where’s my parade?
People treat me differently when I come out; some with new respect, others with micro-aggressive fragility. Our relationship changes when I reveal myself. It’s hard to know who will still respect me. I’m not different; They are. Production processes without respect can get awfully pointless.
Just as Fred was told to be a kid’s entertainer because of his physicality, I was told to be a teacher because of mine. I was taught that actors have to be pretty to be successful. “Pretty” meant “not disabled” to my closed-minded advisers. Fred knew he’d hate entertaining kids, but he tried it because the adults in charge told him to. I knew I’d hate being a teacher (Teachers deserve respect, praise and massive pay raises. Support teachers.), but I had/have authority issues so I didn’t bother trying to be one. My truth is that adults in charge mistreat people who don’t fit their narrow definition of what it is to be “normal.” They don’t mean to. They think they’re doing it for our own good. I’ve learned, just like Fred, that if the definition of “normal” or “successful” or “pretty” doesn’t include us then it definitely shouldn’t apply to us. Fuck the Directors.
It is heartbreakingly affirming to know that Hijinx Theatre is redefining spaces for the disabled in Wales. I fervently wish that pubescent-Kitty, teenage-Kitty, and young adult-Kitty had known that there were companies making space for members of the disability community to perform, play and create. Hijinx isn’t a company for me (their inclusion practices are here), but it is a company for my associates. That work of such high caliber as Meet Fred exists at all is a sign that the disabled community has a tangible, permanent place within the theatre community. It affirms my practice as a performer. Affirmations for disabled theatre practitioners have been decades in the making.