Rebel Rabbit 

New Kiva's newest puppet show is for the kids--with a few moments thrown in for grown-ups

Barbara Mocking considers herself a theater artist first, and a puppeteer almost incidentally.

"About 99 percent of people come to puppetry through the craft of making puppets," she says. "I came to it through my background in theater in Chicago, and my interest in animation. One day I realized, 'Hey, puppets are like live animation!'"

And so Mocking has been the woman behind the curtain, waving her hands over her head and making funny voices, for most of the 29-year existence of New Kiva Motions Puppetheatre. She came to Tucson (from Chicago's adult-oriented Puppet Place) around the time of the Bicentennial and joined the local company, which in the late 1970s gave history and culture puppet shows in a kiva at the Arizona Historical Society. After a few years, Mocking inherited the company from its founder. "He became a Muslim," she notes, "and said he couldn't work with graven images anymore."

For about the past five years, New Kiva Motions has operated out of the Red Barn Theater, 948 N. Main Ave. The place used to be somebody's house; now the living room is the performance space, complete with a stage and simple auditorium-style seating.

Mocking writes her own scripts. Although she has always intended some of her puppetry to be for adults, the Red Barn shows are kid-oriented; it's OK to eat in the theater; the puppets come out for show-and-tell after the performance; and the hour-long activity ends with children making their own rudimentary puppets out of nothing more than refashioned paper plates decorated with crayons.

"I want to demystify puppets," Mocking declares. "I want people to come out of here saying, 'I can do that.'"

Mocking is the sort of person who can happily expound on the metaphysics of Punch and Judy, so it's not surprising that she tosses a few bits of adult interest into her kiddie shows. The current production is a loose adaptation of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, which Mocking subtitles "A tale of youth testing its limits." Peter is the proud owner of a James Dean-style motorcycle jacket, which his mom gave him when he brought home a good report card. (He got an A in P.E.--track.) The little rebel with a cause decides to infiltrate a farmer's vegetable patch, despite the warnings of his mother and several characters he encounters along the way, including an owl, a German monkey (apparently Jewish, judging from the bit of Yiddish that slips out) and a French lamb. (Mocking plays Peter, boyish but not over-cute, and Sara Thompson plays everyone else with a variety of accents.)

Like a horny teenager, Peter embraces zucchini and carrots alike, chomping away and murmuring, "Oh, baby, oh, I love you ... how sweet you are." Dancing with asparagus, a vegetable that to the less-innocent among us has a rather phallic look, Peter declares, "Oh, what the heck ... I swing both ways."

In the end, even though things go very badly for Peter, it's clear that he hasn't learned his lesson. There's something gleefully subversive about this show that any child should appreciate.

Peter Rabbit is not really characteristic of New Kiva Motions' regular fare; it's neither bilingual nor multicultural (aside from the unmentioned fact that the monkey and the lamb happen to be from the two nations that most vocally opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but this is not at all a political show), and Mocking and Thompson use puppets found at garage sales, rather than the usual Mocking-made figures.

But rescuing puppets from yard sales is typical of Mocking's determination not to use a puppet for a single show and then store it in some box forevermore. Take a puppet made for a program about Mexican folktales or Hindu mythology, glue a beard onto it, change its clothes a bit, and now it's a Muslim character. This illustrates not only Mocking's cross-cultural themes, but her conception of puppetry as theater first.

She notes, "I like to cast them in different roles, like actors."

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