Volume 18 • Issue 46 | March 31 - April 6, 2006

Courtesy Apexart

Paul Zaloom’s puppet of war

By Nicole Davis

The Muslim Brotherhood hates him, Al Qaeda hates him, and the Israelis are trying to kill him. His name is Karagoz, a.k.a. “Mother of All Enemies,” and he has just taken up residence Downtown—in a puppet show at Collective: Unconscious.

The show’s creator, Paul Zaloom, describes Karagoz as a “queer-secular-humanist-Quaker-Buddhist-agnostic-Arab-immigrant-artist” who is persecuted by almost everyone. The Syrians jail him for being gay, the Israelis chase him for being Arab, the US links him to a failed bomb plot, and even a whale swallows him at one point—though Zaloom promises that there is a happy ending.

It sounds like a complete farce, but Zaloom’s “Mother of All Enemies,” which runs through April 9, is really just the latest variation on an ancient Middle Eastern shadow puppet tradition known by its goofy, archetypal main character, Karagoz.

“It was very ribald, the tradition,” says Zaloom. For instance, when Karagoz first appeared, he was very, well, very well endowed. “Then Islam took over and they eliminated that. So I’m trying to make an effort to return him to his roots.”
Zaloom is also trying to make light of some very serious things. The inspiration for the show, he says, was “the idea of people who are caught between all these different warring factions.” You know—the neocons, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Muslims, heterosexuals, gays.

“I mean just the idea,” continues Zaloom, “of being a secular, Quaker, Buddhist, agnostic, you know, goofball, queer, weirdo.” Well, maybe we don’t know what that’s like, exactly, but surely we can all identify with the idea of choosing sides.
“It’s a really strong instinct for us,” says Zaloom, “but I kind of feel like to hell with being on any side…they all stink!” Zaloom is especially sensitive to how divisive the world has become since 9/11, an event that Zaloom credits as one of the motivations for this show. “I just felt like, as soon as you saw it, you knew what the history of the US was going to be like for the next 50 years, and it’s got nothing to do what I would want to see happen.”

Zaloom spent 18 years in a loft on Franklin Street before moving to Los Angeles in 1993, the year of the first World Trade Center attack. The native New Yorker, who is half-Syrian, joined the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater in the early 70s and has since performed dozens of shows that combine political satire with puppetry—an unlikely combination for audiences in the U.S. “In American culture, puppets [are geared toward] kids. In [other] cultures, puppets are not for kids, they’re for adults,” says Zaloom. “And they’ve been political throughout time because puppets can say things that actors can’t in repressive regimes.”

As of late, Zaloom, who is also a performance artist and the former host of a children’s science show, has been exploring puppetry’s past. “I’m interested in taking ancient forms of puppetry and then mutating them,” he says, often using his own identity and experience to inform his reinterpretations. Which explains his “Punch and Jimmy” show, for instance—a gay version of Punch and Judy. Or Karagoz, which draws upon his Arab roots. Or the cantastoria included in “Mother of All Enemies,” a traditional, Italian form of storytelling that’s allied with the art of puppetry. Zaloom uses it to explain his own true-life tale of being recruited this past summer by the Marines.

“There are a number of reasons why I can’t be in the Marines. I’m 54 years old, I’m queer as hell... And [the cantastoria] really hinges on that—just the absolute hypocrisy of the military and their complete and total incompetence.” Both stories, his and Karagoz’s, are “mixed and mushed together” in “Mother of All Enemies,” which was made possible by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and is actually an extension of the current exhibit at Apexart called “Neo-Sincerity: The Difference Between the Comic and the Cosmic is a Single Letter.” Curated by Amei Wallach, the visual art show includes puppets of Zaloom’s along with work by Art Spiegelman, Nancy Spero and Bill Anthony, and celebrates the use of laughter in dire times. Because if there’s one thing a secular, humanist, Quaker, queer, weirdo like Zaloom believes in, it’s the healing power of humor.

“The purpose of this show is to have people come and laugh their asses off. I mean in a lot of ways, it’s like the U.S.O. tour for the Left…Good, kind, decent people who don’t take any sides and who feel caught in the middle,” says Zaloom. “I wanted to make a puppet show for us. ”

“Mother of All Enemies” runs through April 9 at Collective: Unconscious, 279 Church Street at White. Tickets are available by calling 212-352-2101 or visiting www.theatermania.com.


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