A Unabomber love story
by Laura Bartlett
Naia Venturi's puppet show Chemical Traces offers a perfect Everyman for an era of rabid-lemming consumerism and ecological destruction. In an age that thinks, for example, that the Yucca Mountain plan to transport nuclear waste over highways in forty-three states for thirty-eight years is a good idea, Venturi's likable young unabomber, Bob, offers the audience a vicarious scream of frustration and rage.
The show is a rant framed as a love story, like a curse written on a valentine. Red velvet curtains slide back to reveal Bob furiously typing his manifesto in his raggedy deep-woods shack. As he sputters out imprecations, his supposed pal and secret rival, unabomber Reynaldo, sidles up to inspect Bob's 900-odd pages. "A manifesto should be at least a thousand pages long," he chides, in an oily foreign accent that combines elements of the Godfadda, Cheech and Chong, and severe constipation.
The sweet young disgruntled postal worker Emily sashays in for a touching scene of shy infatuation, and to pick up Bob's latest bombs, for Yanni and Kenny G. Although packing a machine gun slung on her back, Emily's bashful chat with Bob, a hint at some vestige of innocence, casts her as a creature of curdled idealism rather than less interesting crusted-over cynicism. Bob's tenderness with Emily is a similar human touch that makes the characters more layered than run-of-the-mill homicidal maniacs.
Gangly and expressive, Venturi's puppets are handmade. Bob sports scraggly hair and glaring icy eyes over a torn and stained sweater. Emily's sexy glass cat-eyes gleam over her pressed blue postal uniform and heels, and Reynaldo's camouflage duds mark him as a mad militia type. The puppets' slightly enlarged heads, hands, and feet add a cartoonish note that's countered by their detailed, emotional faces, the focal points of the pleasant, living-room-size Dreamland Theater, which houses about forty colorfully mismatched chairs facing the upright-piano-size stage.
Onstage, Emily sings a dreamy, melancholy love song, "He left chemical traces in my heart,
it is true . . . and these chemical traces may lead me to you." She and Bob dance at a unabomber convention complete with mirror ball, and Ted Koppel's hair appears, minus Ted Koppel ("It's a long story"), to bid on Bob's manifesto for a Dateline exclusive. After Reynaldo trashes Emily to Bob, asserting that she drinks Starbucks coffee, drives an SUV, and was spotted watching NBC and CNN news and "nodding approvingly," a crushed Bob spurns Emily as "nothing but a puppet, who twists and turns according to the capricious whims of imperialist dogma." Find out whether Bob and Emily's fragile love survives when Chemical Traces returns to Ypsilanti's Dreamland Theater on Saturday and Sunday, August 3 and 4.
[Originally published in August, 2002.]