The Hellblinki Cripps Puppet Spectacular

Known for dramatic, dark-punk performances, the local three-piece band Hellblinki teams up with puppeteer Madison J. Cripps to present their first puppet rock opera, The Devil Takes All. Pushing the theatricality of its live acts to a new level – with Cripps working as puppet engineer/character mastermind – Hellblinki describes its upcoming show as a journey “down the rabbit hole” and as an adventure through the “dubious wonders of Hellblinkland.”

Combining elements of folk music with a Gothic cabaret edge “put through a punk-rock filter,” Helblinki’s music creates a grim yet fanciful atmosphere, a quality that the musicians hope to exemplify at The Hellblinki Cripps Puppet Spectacular, slated for March 17 at the Grey Eagle.

“We started collaborating with Madison to create a performance-based show with puppetry as part of our set,” Andrew Benjamin tells Xpress. Benjamin sings and plays guitar and drums with Hellblinki. “The more we put into the mix the more original and different the music becomes, and ultimately richer. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.” Clad in costume, Benjamin performs in a top hat and always paints his face white, an aesthetic inspired by old black-and-white photographs. He will be performing with band mates Valerie Meiss, who sings “guerilla opera” and plays the accordion and piano, and with JonPaul Hess, a new member of the group playing bass and keytar.

Cripps, the founder of Strings Attached Marionettes and of the Cripps Walking Theatre (many pedestrians may have encountered him unknowingly as he roams the streets of downtown Asheville performing impromptu puppetry shows) says that he fell right into place collaborating with Hellblinki. “I’d been wanting to collaborate on a larger project like this for a while,” Cripps says. “This is my growing edge, to develop a story which dictates what puppets need to be made.”

This is how the Hellblinki Cripps Puppet Spectacular will work: Hellblinki’s lyrics generate the narrative of the show, which, though obscure, establishes the tone and rhythm of the production. Hand-made puppets forged from Cripps’ wild imagination will star as actors/characters in the show. As Hellblinki’s set unfolds, shadow puppets, rod puppets and projection will be used to tell the story of a fool-hearted wanderer who travels beyond the threshold of reality.

The Devil Takes All, can be thought of as an abstract musical/puppet show that fuses thematic elements akin to those found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which Cripps describes as simply “verbiage to bring up imagery that’s already in the collective consciousness. When you hear Frankenstein, you think of a scientist, a creator, a monster, a love story, you think dark, Halloween, electricity and nuts and bolts on the neck,” Cripps says. “And when you think of Alice in Wonderland you think of a journey, you’re traveling through doors and portholes into different lands that are strange and fantastical.”

Since the story itself is narrated by Hellbliniki’s music and may, at times, be hard to follow, here is a brief introduction of the main characters in The Devil Takes All. Described as an Everyman character, as The Fool in the Tarot deck and as a dreamy wanderer, the main puppet/protagonist in the tale is Hatgrin Hellblinki. Hatgrin willingly climbs through the rabbit hole, where he meets a female puppet in a red dress: the seductive, elusive love interest who is consistently placed just beyond Hatgrin’s reach. In order to move closer to the striking puppet in red, however, Hatgrin must first confront the monster of Hellblinkland, a demonic creature fashioned from torn-up baby dolls. Looming over the scene is an all-powerful puppet with long, spindly fingernails and a creepy countenance shaped like a human scull. This puppet, “The Creator,” is an inescapable narrator, a God-like figure watching and manipulating the show as it unfurls.

The cast-of-characters are presented in three forms: as shadow puppets (little puppets on a stick that, when maneuvered in front of a projector, turn into shadows that travel across the stage), rod puppets (picture a doll supported by stick rods attached to various parts of its body) and projected recordings (multi-media footage/recorded puppetry skits). To create these puppets, Cripps fished through “piles of detritus and tossed away stuff found in the bins at Goodwill,” that he them re-ensembled, “hacked and hewed,” into characters. Though the puppets themselves sound as though they were inspired by a nightmare, Benjamin says that the show is family friendly: “Though dark, the show is fine for kids, but ear plugs are recommended.”

Opening for the Hellblinki Cripps Puppet Spectacular are performers, musicians and actors with Asheville Vaudeville, see Steven Samuels’ review in Sightlines. Featured acts include juggling sensation Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth, magic-comedian Tom the Magician, Hungarian accordionist Bretian and a comedy sketch titled “Canned Feud,” performed and written by Thomas Butler.

“This collaboration is particularly fun for us because it ties in a collaboration between Asheville Vaudeville and Hellblinki that dates back four years when the band performed as house band for a free outdoor festival at Pritchard Park,” says Brian Sneeden, co-producer of Asheville Vaudeville. “We want to provide an opening act that delights and entertains in a variety of ways.”

The musicians, performs and puppets involved in the Hellblinki Cripps Puppet Spectacular beckon the community to step through the porthole and discover their absurd and wondrous world beyond the rabbit hole. Join them if you dare!

The Hellblinki Cripps Puppet Spectacular will be performed on Wednesday, March 17, at 8:30 p.m. at the Grey Eagle. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Info: or 232-5800.

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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