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There are moments during Meat & Potato's custom-made, but plot borrowed, stage production of "Aliens (The Puppet Musical)" that make you scratch your head in wonder that you're spending an evening at the theater with puppets. Lots of puppets.
For, aside from a story lifted more or less straight from James Cameron's beloved 1986 summer-movie smash, you have rod puppets, screen puppets and a bevy of hand puppets thrown into the bargain.
The wonderful surprise at the center of this rollicking theater maelstrom water pistols included is that you don't scratch your head more often. Instead, you roll merrily along with all two hours of it. That is, if you're a geek at heart sensitive to "Aliens'" every nuanced play, pun and turn on sci-fi cultural references. Only a fool would be moved by "Aliens (The Puppet Musical)," but only a bitter curmudgeon would be unmoved enough not to laugh at least four times.
If you know "Aliens" at all, a plot run-down is almost useless. Meat & Potato is more interested in playing with its outline, adding hand puppets, the aforementioned pop culture references and musical numbers. The songs themselves are wildly uneven, and unevenly placed throughout. But they add a great deal of fun to the proceedings. Classically trained vocalist Raina Thorne, who takes center stage in a surprise role, is a case in point.
Rebecca Marcotte plays Ripley, the woman-warrior character made iconic by Sigourney Weaver. But instead of traveling back to planet LV-426 to slay "xenomorphs" for Weyland-Yutani Corp. with colonial marines, she's commandeering a cast a puppets. Standing in for evil corporate tool Burke, played in the film by Paul Reiser, is a puppet that looks suspiciously like Bert of "Sesame Street." If the pun is at first painful, it catches on.
Watching the cast maneuver past, through and around the film's plot with nothing but flashlights, two large rectangular props and laugh-out-loud costuming solutions is half the fun here. Perhaps the only element that works against the production is the way each puppeteer is dressed all in black, making the cast look like a troupe of ninjas as Marcotte jogs from one end of the stage to the other. It's a necessary evil. Otherwise, at almost every turn you wonder out loud if the cast can pull it off. Spicing virtually every scene with surprise and wit, they do. At one crucial juncture, they get some hilarious help from a Rod Serling stand-in.
The play's myriad references to "Star Wars," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Sesame Street" become wearisome at times, in the same way that even the best episodes of "The Simpsons" can. If you're allergic to that sort of device at all, steer clear.
"Aliens (The Puppet Musical)" is the sort of theater production to which the standard rules don't really apply. There's plenty to be said about the way it's delivered in a roulette-wheel fashion that keeps you guessing, but like the film on which it's based, there's no good reason for it to exist other than great thrills and a good time.
True to his stated mission of theater with entertaining sustenance, company artistic director Tobin Atkinson has offered up fare that amuses more than enlightens. Puppets mixed with sci-fi on a theater stage may sound like bubble gum studded with broken glass, but this is worth the chew.
'Aliens (The Puppet Musical)'
R Bottom line • A rollicking stage adaptation of the 1986 summer movie. Jettison all your usual expectations about theater, load up on sci-fi film references and you'll have a blast. Two hours with 10-minute intermission.
When • Thursday review. Playing through June 10. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Sunday.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City
Info • $20, with discounts for students and seniors. Call 801-355-2787 or visit http://www.arttix.org.