Puppets of the Abyss

As both legend and history have it, Ishi was the last living member of the Yahi people of Northern California. He lived outside of European-American civilization until, in 1911, he wandered into a small town and the annals of historical oddities. “He ended up living in a museum as an exhibit, and then also as a janitor,” recounts Eamon Espey, as delighted as he is horrified by the story. “Hysterical, right? I mean, it’s terrible. But it gets stranger.”

Espey is an artist and the story of Ishi has been percolating in his mind for a decade and a half until finding a home in “Songs of the Abyss,” a graphic novel published earlier this year by Secret Acres Press. With wife Lisa Krause, a professional puppeteer, Espey has transformed the story into a grotesque puppet show he calls “Ishi’s Brain.” The puppeteering pair is currently on a five-week tour from Detroit to Seattle. And they hit Roxaboxen Exhibitions on a cold and wet Wednesday night.

The part of Ishi’s saga that fascinates Espey actually took place after Ishi’s death in 1916. The man’s body stayed in California, but his brain was put in a Pueblo Indian pottery jar, wrapped in deerskin, and sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Espey gives the tale a dreamy sci-fi spin, retaining the ache of separation from culture and ancestry with a healthy dose of abstraction. The exuberance of the graphic novel form is obvious in the show, as spaceships zip around while stringed skeletons dance towards resolution. “His brain is in a flying saucer and sent up in space to meet his ancestor. It’s a happy ending,” Espey explains.

The show is a sparse celestial gamelan, moving from shadow to string puppets, then to full-size costumes. The puppet show’s original score, by Baltimore’s Stephen Santillian, transitions smoothly from trance-inducing drumming to more contemporary (though no less trance-like) electronic music.
The streets of Pilsen outside Roxaboxen were slowly flooding, but the room gradually filled with people as the hour progressed. The audience (young, denim-clad, and wet) cheerfully passed bottles in brown paper bags and sat cross-legged on the wooden floor. Roxaboxen had threatened to cancel the event earlier in the day due to a waterlogged basement, but the minicastle rallied at the last minute and was rewarded by a fan base loyal enough to brave the storms for a stranger-than-fiction story of belated redemption and painted cardboard spaceships.