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Speakeasy with Paul Zaloom

Political puppet show at Center for Puppetry Arts

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For most of the 1990s, Paul Zaloom taught scientific principles through wacky experiments as "Beakman" on the hit children's show "Beakman's World." For most of his 37-year career, however, Zaloom has used puppetry to "teach" satirical political principles, and he brings his latest one-man comedy, The Mother of All Enemies, to the Center for Puppetry Arts from April 11-13.

For years you've been bringing your political puppet shows to the Center for Puppetry Arts. What was the inspiration of The Mother of All Enemies? Lately there has been this assault against secular humanism. In Egypt, everyone wants to kill you if you're a secular humanist. Guys like Mubarak and Saddam Hussein give "secular" a bad name – and they helped create Islamist fundamentalism. And in the States we're getting it in every direction. The pope's going on about how we're amoral, useless people. We take offense to that. I just felt like making some spirited defense of secular humanism – and also queerness, or "queerdom." The lead character is a secular humanist/Quaker/Buddhist/agnostic, and he's queer, so I thought I'd make the case for that particular demographic. I happen to be a half-Syrian, queer, secular humanist/Quaker/Buddhist/agnostic.

Doesn't the show's main character, "Karagoz," come from traditional puppetry? The show I'm doing comes from an Arab puppet tradition. Karagoz is an archetypal, bad-boy puppet character, like Punch in England. He's the archetypal bumbling wiseass ... every culture one has one. Karagoz has a long tradition as a ribald anarchistic puppet. He had a big dick before the Islamists took over in the Middle East.

Because the show speaks to Middle Eastern concerns and traditions, will you be performing it for Arab or Middle Eastern communities? No. I have been invited to perform in Israel, though. The content I don't think will be viewed as particularly friendly and some people don't like seeing religion portrayed in that [irreverent] way. And it's queer as hell, which doesn't fit into Arab Middle Eastern culture. I also portray al-Qaeda and the ex-gay movement. Anyone can find something to object to in the show.

While you're in town you're also teaching a class called "A Theatre of Trash." Are you especially interested in "found object" puppetry that involves garbage? I do found-object puppet shows – puppetry with junk, with appliances, anything – and sometimes interesting things come out of that. I've done about 17 shows about trash, so I think I've beat it to death. Now I'm working my way through every type of puppet. It's the most bombastic, bullshit goal I could think of, to master all kinds of puppetry. The Mother of All Enemies is shadow puppetry.

If you're mastering all kinds of puppetry, what style are you doing next? I'm working on a piece in the ancient cantastoria tradition, in which a performer tells or sings a story in front of a large illustration. It's considered related to puppetry. The Mother of All Enemies also contains a cantastoria piece, about how the Marines tried to recruit me. They had sent out I think 186,000 letters to individuals, including me, who they believed spoke Arabic to do translation work. They did this at the same time they fired 56 translators for being gay and lesbian, even though they had a backlog of documents to be translated. Because the religionists have taken over the military, they don't care about al-Qaeda and national security; they just want no more homos in the military. So that's where the jokes are in that part of the show.

You don't seem like the obvious choice for a host of children's show. How did you become the star of "Beakman's World"? They auditioned every guy in L.A. for the part, but they kept getting sitcom dads. They needed someone from outside the acting system – I'm more of Brechtian actor, or a "mountebank" – someone who could wink at the audience and be this faker, phony-baloney knucklehead. I ended up doing about 40 characters on the show, because I could do lots of accents. I still do Beakman all the time. We do large "Beakman" stage shows and bus in middle school and high school kids. I love doing kids' entertainment. I get 'em all riled up, screaming and flipping out. Kids aren't used to hearing an adult refer to himself as an "idiot" or a "knucklehead."

Were you the only live actor in last year's puppetry-based Dante's Inferno film? I was the fat, ugly guy in red paint. I played the Devil. It was typecasting. I also played God, which was also typecasting.

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