I am backstage at the Copley Theatre, naked but for a purple cape draped over my shoulders, rolling my penis between the palms of my hands, tugging at my scrotum, padding from foot to foot like a boxer before a bout. " What are you doing? " asks a nearby sound technician, shaking his head in disbelief. I want to say, " The ancient Australian art of genital origami, " but all I can manage is a strangled, " Iím not really sure. " Shaking his head again, the guy goes back to twiddling his own knobs. " Youíre a braver man than I am. "
Maybe so, but I am not the only one to have tried his hand at this. There have been others ó those with no training, those with dubious qualifications ó who have muddled their way through the Puppetry of the Penis repertoire. In fact, I am told there are a great many men who will willingly stand up before complete strangers and mold their genitals into the showís various " installations " : the Hamburger, the Eiffel Tower, the Loch Ness Monster, the Pelican. Though my own grasp of the penile arts may be shaky, there have been Hamburger-manglers far worse than I.
At a recent Puppetry show in Sacramento, for example, a booze-emboldened audience member leapt onto the stage, whipped off his clothes, and began to palpitate furiously, intently, his bun and burger squirming between his fingers like panicky hamsters. There were a few awkward moments ó the improbable but dreadful prospect of an erection arising ó and then: ta-daaa! " It looked like nothing, " says veteran puppeteer Simon Morley. " He just wanted to get his nuts out on stage. "
I wasnít that bad, was I? " No, " says Morley. " You didnít frighten us. "
For those whoíve been living in a cave, Puppetry of the Penis is the burlesque body-art show thatís currently enjoying an extended run at the Copley Theatre. In the show, Australians Morley and Dan Lewry stand on stage and perform what they call " dick tricks, " twisting and stretching and scrunching their equipment into 40 tear-jerking configurations. Itís worth the price of admission just to see how a penis and two testicles can be tortured into the shape of a skateboard.
The show is, if nothing else, a one-of-a-kind spectacle, made all the more arresting by the fact that the pretzeled members are broadcast on an enormous screen behind the performers. In other parts of the world, people love this stuff ó the London broadsheet the Independent voted it " Best New Show of 2000 " ó but you have to wonder how well the panoramic cock is going down with Bostonís theater-going public. Morley thinks he knows. " No oneís really ready for three-story-high genitalia, " he says. " People all react pretty much the same. "
In Boston, anyway, reactions have ranged from hysterical laughter to slack-jawed wonder to outright horror. As one man fumed on an Internet message board: " Perverted! " But Puppetry of the Penis is anything but that. For all its nudity, the show is a remarkably non-sexual affair. Itís a locker-room lark, naughty horseplay. You could call the showís Hairy Tongue installation many things, but sexy isnít one of them. And anyway, Morley and Lewry are too genial to be lewd. They are the kind of guys who, as they will readily admit, inspire old ladies to say, " Ooh, isnít he a nice boy! "
Still, there does seem to be some confusion over what Puppetry of the Penis is. A local paper recently raised the question, " Is this art? " You could argue that the show, by treating the penis as a plaything, works to divest the organ of its sexual potency. You could speak of post-priapic archetypes and the deconstruction of patriarchal-societal signifiers. But to do so would be as absurd as the show itself. Puppetry of the Penis is pure slapstick, a classic double act ó Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin minus the pants. " We call it Ďthe ancient Australian art of genital origamií in a very tongue-in-cheek way, " says Morley. " But we know what it is. Itís a shameless belly laugh. Weíre not trying to fool anyone. "
If the Puppetry boys do represent a kind of Lewis and Martin, then Simon Morley, who bears the distinction of being the original puppeteer, is the suave half of the duo. At 36, with a head of dark curly hair and an amused glint in his eye, Morley is handsome in a languid, Ray Liotta way. He is also, one cannot help but notice, in possession of a rather large package. The 26-year-old Dan Lewry, who has been a puppeteer for mere weeks, is more boyish, with a thatch of dirty-blond hair and a face that is begging to be pinched. He is more antic than his partner, more guileless, and more, er, slight of build. Morley calls him " my little coiled spring. "
One thing the two have in common is an extreme affability. Approached outside the Copley one night by a couple of tourists from Mexico, Lewry and Morley field a hail of queries ó " Are you gay? " " Are there women in the act? " ó with backslapping good humor, eventually handing the befuddled Mexicans a pair of complimentary, front-row tickets. " That, " says Morley, grinning, " is what the showís all about. " All the same, there are those for whom a cock is a cock is a cock, no matter whoís on the end of it. " I canít believe, " raged one message-board malcontent, " that people are paying to watch two guys play with themselves! "
But people have been paying to watch this. People like Elton John and Naomi Campbell have paid to watch it. " Iíve played in front of 3000 people, " says Morley. " Iíve performed where Shakespeare trod the boards. "
Despite its subsequent associations with the Bard of Avon and the singer of " Rocket Man, " Puppetry of the Penis had humble beginnings. As Morley tells it, the whole thing started on a living-room couch in a suburb outside Melbourne, sometime in the mid 1990s. " I was sitting there minding my own business, " he recalls, " when my brother Justin came in and showed me a hamburger heíd made out of his genitalia. I thought it was the funniest thing Iíd ever seen, so we built up this repertoire of these things, trying to make each other laugh. "
From here, Morley started performing at parties. People laughed. He created a " Penis Puppet " calendar. It flopped. " I put the calendar up at midnight at a New Yearís party, " he says, " and at two in the morning my friends came up to me and said, ĎLook, we think itís good and all, but do you mind if we take it down? Itís a little hard to look at.í I realized then that I was in for strife ó if my friends couldnít look at this for two hours, how is anyone going to cope for 12 months? So I took [the act] to the stage to move a garage full of calendars. "
Itís possible that Morleyís friends just didnít recognize a good thing when they saw it. Within a few years of the calendar debacle, Puppetry of the Penis had moved from the barrooms of Melbourne to the Edinburgh Festival to Londonís West End to New York. Today, the show has companies in the US, Australia, and England ó with plans to take it to Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, France, and South Africa. Its Boston run has been extended more than once by popular demand. But success has its price: the show, it seems, is desperately short on puppeteers.
Which is where I come in.
Itís going to be a stretch, but I might pull it off. " This is my standard line in the days prior to Puppetry of the Penisís Boston auditions. Though people generally react with horror when I tell them Iím planning on trying out for the show, I shrug off such reactions with a blithe, " Itíll be fun. " When a colleague asks me if Iíve been doing any training for the occasion, I respond with a robust, " Iíve been training for this all my life! " I walk up to people at parties and ask if they want to see my John Hancock. As the day of the audition approaches, however, my devil-may-care attitude begins to unravel. I have questions:
Q: Will it hurt?
Q: Will I measure up?
Q: Am I buff enough?
Q: What if I get a, you know?
And the puppeteers, of course, have answers:
A: Absolutely not. If thereís one thing a man knows how to do from an early age, itís how to handle his genitals.
A: Youíve got to have a decent set of nuts. Youíve got to have a stretchy scrotum, and youíve got to have a fair-size penis. But you donít want to frighten anybody, either.
A: Look at us, weíre not Chippendales.
A: Thatís our motto: " We never work hard. " Get a stiffy and youíre out.
Stiffies, as it turns out, happen. At a recent audition in Portland, Oregon, an ex-postal worker became engorged midway through his burger. " He wouldnít stay down, " Lewry explains. " Heís trying to work with this hard-on ... "
Morley: " Next! "
The problem is, the Puppet people are looking for men with a lack of inhibition ó which isnít always a good thing. " You get some normal guys who like a laugh, " says Lewry, " but it also attracts the nut bags. " He adds, " These things can get strange. "
How strange? Well, there was the guy in Montreal, as Lewry remembers it, " who read a mad poem that none of us could understand. Halfway through, his girlfriend walks up, pulls down his pants and puts an eggplant on it. "
Morley: " Thank you! "
Then there was the Manhattan waiter, who " basically showed up to prove that he still had the biggest cock in New York. " This guy falls into a familiar category: the exhibitionists, the guys who, as Morley puts it, " just want to get their pants off. " Sometimes, he says, " it makes you assess what you do for a living: am I like that? "