Paul Zaloom resists easy categorization. Performance artist, TV-science-show host, political satirist, puppeteer, agnostic Buddhist gay Quaker -- yeah, all that, and all at once sometimes, too, which may be why his work is revered in some circles and little known in the mainstream.
In any case, all of Zaloom is on display in "The Mother of All Enemies," the final show in this year's Out on the Edge Festival from the Theater Offensive. Like its creator, the show is hard to pin down: a shadow-puppet play that puts a traditional character, Karagoz, in some decidedly untraditional situations; a sharply political riff on Homeland Security and gay rights, with enough flatulence and penis jokes to make any schoolboy giddy with glee; a goofy romp with a few serious thoughts at its core. And we haven't even gotten to the secular-humanist bumper stickers.
That's actually where Zaloom begins, in a low-key monologue about his excursion from an artists' colony near Daytona Beach, Fla., to that Harley mecca's annual Biketoberfest. Inspired by the (unquotably obscene) slogans he saw there, Zaloom comes up with a few gatherings he'd prefer: "Quakerama? Agnostithon? Buddhapalooza?" The bumper stickers he imagines for them are funnier than the bikers' but scarcely more printable; the best might be the last: "Quaker bumper sticker," he says, and holds up -- wait for it -- one that's completely blank.
Then it's down to work. Zaloom goes behind a white screen for his shadow-puppet show, introducing the burly Karagoz in fez and curly-toed slippers. All this sweet puppet wants is to kiss his boyfriend, Henry, in public, but because they're in Syria that's not a good idea. So here come the pigs -- actual pink puppet pigs, in a squad car -- and off Karagoz goes on a picaresque journey from one repressive regime to the next.
Using a flock of silhouettes on sticks, ingeniously engineered by puppet builder Lynn Jeffries, Zaloom sends Karagoz from Syria to Israel to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan -- "Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh, here we are at Camp Al Qaeda," Zaloom warbles -- and then on to a fateful encounter with a disco-dancing Statue of Liberty.
There's plenty of room along the way for jabs at homophobia, xenophobia, and any other phobia worth jabbing. Midway through, Zaloom also makes a hilarious, scary digression into his own true story of being recruited by the Marines. Yes, he's 54 years old ; yes, he's gay; but all the recruiters know -- or think they know -- when they approach him is that he speaks Arabic, and that makes him valuable.
"That's not Arabic! That's puppet gibberish!" Zaloom exclaims.
A lot of this is very funny. A lot of it is also very childish, though decidedly not for children. It can also feel a little formless.
For my money, though, one of the show's highlights came afterward, when Zaloom invited the audience up onstage to see how the puppets work. With the friendly, clear enthusiasm that has made his "Beakman's World" a success on TV, he talked about angles of light, the mechanics of puppet joints, and the history of shadow puppetry from Turkey to Indonesia.
The chat was funny, charming, and informative. And it didn't need a single flatulence joke to make it work.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.