They meet on a line for a movie. The man and the woman — each disfigured by childhood accidents — are both used to being stared at, and they are used to being alone. At the Under the Radar festival, inspired by the late Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti’s tender short story, “La noche de los feos” (The night of the ugly people), the Chilean theater troupe Teatro y Su Doble is presenting “Feos,” which combines puppetry and animation to tell the story of the encounter between these two shunned people, and their awkward, hesitant attempts at connecting — on the line, then in a cafe, eventually in bed.
Six puppeteers dressed in black invisibly and seamlessly manipulate the man and the woman, and the other characters — the couples on the movie line, the people at the cafe. The text by Guillermo Calderón has expanded on Beneditta’s prose with smart and sometimes thought-provoking dialogue. But I’ve seen enough fine puppetry theater for adults (including at Under the Radar) to feel that “Feos” falls short of the best use of the puppetry arts in theatrical storytelling. The problem is in the long middle section of the 50-minute play, which takes place in the cafe, with the couple just sitting at a table talking. The setting is dark, their voices in Spanish are pre-recorded and oddly dispassionate, while the English supertitles projected on a scrim are long and literary. Maybe other viewers didn’t find this distancing and soporific; but would anybody argue that such sedentary scenes are best handled by mannequins of limited motion and emotion rather than human actors?
It’s only in the final ten minutes or so, in the brief bedroom scenes, presented between blackouts like flashes of memory, that the use of puppetry seems not only exactly apt; it can take your breath away.
“Feos” is on stage at the Public Theater, as part of Under the Radar Festival, through January 19, 2020.