New York-based puppeteers Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James bring their wordless tragicomedy Bill’s 44th to the Edinburgh Fringe, in association with Underbelly.
This introspective puppet show explores physical and emotional seclusion, a concept that carries added weight following the pandemic, in a tender and hilarious party that has been selected as a NYTimes Critic’s Pick and received two OFFIE nominations.
The streamers are hung, the punch has been spiked and the cake is just begging to be eaten. The anxious host, Bill, has planned his party to the last detail and now, all that remains is for his guests to arrive.
Desperate to fill his apartment with camaraderie and celebration, his imagination runs wild. Bill’s 44th explores loneliness and self-acceptance through different styles of puppetry, raucous balloons and a cheeky piece of crudité.
You’re bringing Bill’s 44th to Edinburgh Fringe, what can you tell us about the show?
Bill’s 44th is a full-length (55 minutes), wordless, comedic puppet show for adults performed with an original, recorded score.
It is a sit-com, it is nostalgic, it is horrific, it is unexpected, it is a celebration… and you’re invited!
What inspired you to create it?
Maybe unsurprisingly we weren’t terribly interested in making a story about a birthday party at first. Originally, we were asked to fulfill a prompt for a puppet slam (a night of short performances centered around a theme). The theme was “They are coming,” so we thought to ourselves “Wouldn’t it be funny if we threw a birthday party where nobody showed up?” Perhaps it was rather tragic, actually, but it made us laugh. And once we created the character and thrust him into that situation, so much more than a bad joke emerged.
How does using puppetry help you connect differently with the audience?
I don’t want to spoil the magic of it all, but the reality is that the audience is doing a lot more work than normal. Puppets can’t be sad, or happy, or even alive! Not like actors are able to be, certainly.
Instead, we move objects and you as the audience decide the story in your mind. Of course, we are suggesting how to feel by looking at things, or gesturing, but you are filling in the blanks. Most shows don’t ask for your imagination to be such a crucial element, but don’t worry! Your subconscious takes care of most of that for you so you can focus on enjoying the performance.
It tackles themes of loneliness, but it’s also a comedy, how have you balanced the two in this production?
Comedy is often tragedy plus time. That equation can be flipped and inverted and thrown away, though, and usually better for it. I think it is less how we balance tragedy and comedy, and instead how they begin to shift away from your assumptions of what is funny or sad. Is it just a clown show about a dull birthday party? What truth lays beneath the layers of booze and frosting?
How does it feel to be bringing Bill’s 44th to the Edinburgh Fringe?
Alarming! Horrifying! And terribly exciting.
What would you say to anyone thinking about booking to see Bill’s 44th?
If you’ve never seen a puppet show, it’s a good gateway drug. If you have seen plenty of puppet shows, then you may see something new. If you have a birthday then you will definitely have an experience.