Puppets can be enchanting and a little disturbing, a contradiction that performers and theatrical masterminds Zach Dorn and Murphi Cook make the most of in their touring act's mini-spectacles.
The duo, who perform under the vaudevillian moniker Miniature Curiosa, will be presenting their "ahistorical" saga Moon City at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg on March 24 and 25.
Framed by a 10-foot stage, Moon City comes to life with cardboard cutouts, construction paper, spotlights, low-fi animations via projection and eerie moon-like shadows.
"It's like Tim Burton befriended Tom Waits as a child and taught him to make home movies with dolls and play sets," a Charleston City Paper review said.
The story gets its inspiration from a failed amusement park created by Frederick Ingersoll, a real-life turn-of-the-20th-century designer and inventor, Dorn says.
A Blake High School grad who grew up in Lutz, Dorn says he has a Floridian fondness for roadside attractions of yesteryear. He couldn't resist creating a tale inspired by an Ingersoll tragedy.
He explains that Ingersoll had owned a chain of amusement parks in the early 20th century and is credited for conceptualizing the theme park as we know it today. One of the attractions, Luna Park in Pittsburgh (1906-09), met a tragic end, and Moon City reimagines the doomed wonderland as if it were built with an outlandish, unlimited budget in the swamps of Florida.
"There are a lot of similarities in some the histories of Pittsburgh and Florida, especially at the turn of the century when inventors came in and merged magnificent, strange feats of technology and amusements," Dorn says.
Dorn met Cook at the University of Connecticut about a decade ago. The couple, now both 29, relocated to Pittsburgh after their undergrad years, so Cook could pursue her master's degree in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon University.
"We met in playwriting class — we were the only two people writing really, really weird plays," Dorn says. "Murphi was writing about a woman talking to her husband's severed head on a dining room table, and I was writing puppet plays about JonBenet Ramsey."
The couple have performed at the Studio@620 at least once a year over the past four years, including Tonight a Clown Travels Time and An Excruciatingly Ordinary Toy Theater Show.
They're currently working on a new play and have temporarily relocated to St. Pete with their schnauzer-poodle Hugo Bones, who crosses his front paws and politely watches his masters rehearse.
Dorn's speaking manner is thoughtful and deliberate, complementing the cheerful, high-energy squeal of Cook, who sounds like a dainty cartoon character. Both act out a romance with puppets in their "fast-talking, fast-moving" Moon City.