Bruce Coleman wields power over the gods, turning Greek myths into Day-Glo puppets for his family-friendly world premiere ‘Mount Olympus’

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer

BUNRAKU? I HARDLY KNOW U!  |  The actors in Bruce Coleman’s newest play are hidden in shadow while their alter egos are vividly colored Bunraku puppets from Greek mythology. (Photo courtesy Ken Birdsell)
BUNRAKU? I HARDLY KNOW U! | The actors in Bruce Coleman’s newest play are hidden in shadow while their alter egos are vividly colored Bunraku puppets from Greek mythology. (Photo courtesy Ken Birdsell)

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Greek gods, with their muscular bodies and tendency to wear skimpy garb, may be the fantasies of gay men. But to kids, the mythology behind Zeus, Hercules, Hera is more like the perfect combination of a comic book and a soap opera. Superpowers intertwined with high drama held many youngsters’ attentions, even for li’l Brucey Coleman.

Now that he’s director-designer-playwright Bruce Coleman, that fascination has stuck around. He comes full circle to his elementary school days with his newest play, Tales from Mount Olympus, which gets its world premiere this week at Theatre Three’s downstairs stage, Theatre Too. Keeping a childlike sense of wonder alive, he’s turned his gods into puppets.

“When I was a fourth grader, I remembered this book on Greek myths which I checked out so many times from the library,” he says. “I loved the order and sense of those stories and the gods, not that my own life was chaotic. They had their domains. That order appealed to me and maybe even made sense for why I came into theater — everyone in theater has their [sensibility].”

In Mount Olympus, Coleman has reimagined four tales from classic Greek mythology performed by a cast of puppets. But he doesn’t go all Avenue Q on the audience with R-rated language and adult situations. Instead, as he pitched the idea of the play to Theatre Three founder and executive producer Jac Alder, this is a family-friendly play that appeals to adults and kids. In fact, he hopes people will bring their children out — even if there is some puppet nudity.

“Well, we all know Aphrodite wasn’t born in a track suit,” he laughs. “But I had suggested that we hadn’t done any family programming and I wanted to push this as something adults and their kids could come to. Jac got really excited about that.”

During Coleman’s stint as a high school drama teacher, part of his curriculum was to do a children’s show every year. Staying away from the usual Three Pigs/Cinderella plays, he directed shows based on mythology. Not only did the students get into it, so did other teachers. He knew he was on to something.

But entertaining third and fourth graders is one thing; will professional theater audiences buy into it? Coleman isn’t worried. He holds his young cast in high esteem and the design of the show is electrifying. Glowing puppets, blizzards, rising moons — Coleman knows his audience will fall into the magic of it all.

KING OF THE SEA  |  Poseidon is actually the god of hotness — for a puppet, at least — in the world premiere ‘Tales from Mount Olympus.’
KING OF THE SEA | Poseidon is actually the god of hotness — for a puppet, at least — in the world premiere ‘Tales from Mount Olympus.’

“We use Bunraku puppets where the puppeteer is clad in all black,” he says. “Julie Taymor called this the double event, where the audience is aware of both, but there is this moment when you cross over into seeing the puppets only. It’s really kind of thrilling.”

Still, he credits the puppeteers with really acting their parts, and doesn’t want audiences to forget that. With no formal puppet training among them, everyone started at a level playing field. Coleman rallied them into thinking of it as one major acting exercise.

“The cast is young and strong and help bring this to life and keep pushing it,” he says. “There is a moment when Hades’ discovery brings him down. Lee Wadley and Ryan Martin did these simple movements and made it heartbreaking. There is lots of teamwork and they worked really hard to create emotions.”

With eight actors playing more than 100 characters — including pillars, butterflies and other background — Coleman is ready to move on from rehearsals to show time. Actors came into the show with enthusiasm and no preconceived notions about their work. And Coleman says every rehearsal has brought some new surprise to the show.

“I’m anxious to get this in front of an audience,” he says. “And with the actors, the puppets have taken steps in their evolution. One of my main goals is to get that imagination ignited again. We have a blizzard at the end of Act 1. Who does that?”

With adult hindsight, Coleman now sees the importance of these stories and the meanings behind them for young people. The moral tales and life lessons come much clearer with life experience. But he also knows that the gods and goddesses have their own subtexts that speak directly to LGBT audiences. The characters are already inherently interesting, but it sounds like they have some major fab cred behind them.

“Well, yes! I mean Artemis is the goddess of all lesbians. She made Zeus promise her that she’d never have to marry a man,” he laughs.

“Goddess of the hunt? OK, go on, girl. And everyone knows Dionysus [the god of wine] is our patron saint.”

But one puppet god might end up catching some eyes ogling a little more intently.

“Someone had looked at my Poseidon and said he is not the god of the ocean,” Coleman chuckles, ”he’s the god of hotness!”


Spooky theater

Just in time for Halloween, some plays are opening with a sense of the macabre.

Over at SMU, James Crawford has directed a play by the oddly named Five Lesbian Brothers called The Secretaries. The brutal, satiric play about feminism and female bonding is set in a logging town where once a month something nasty happens. The student production gets its final performance Friday at 8 p.m.the Margo Jones Theatre on campus. Call 214-768-2787 for tickets.

Elias Taylorson recently joined Broken Gears Project Theatre as co-artistic director just in time for their newest show, The Pitchfork Disney. A sexually changed surreal play about indulgent young people, it plays in the heart of Oak Lawn in a new 40-seat theater at 3819 Fairmount, across from the Grapevine Bar. For tickets, call 917-415-9482.

Perhaps even creepier than all this, of course, is heterosexual romance. Eeek! Don’t be too afraid (a little, not too) of Neil Simon’s early classic about newlyweds in New York, Barefoot in the Park, pictured. It’s actually a charming situation comedy with lot of signature Simon one-liners. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas opens the show Friday. For tickets, call 214-828-0094

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010