Jeff Achtem performs his shadow-puppet show Swamp Juice, produced by both Achtem and Bunk Puppets, at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Jeff Achtem performs his shadow-puppet show Swamp Juice, produced by both Achtem and Bunk Puppets, at the Barrow Street Theatre.
(© Andrew Wuttke)

When audiences enter the Barrow Street Theatre to check out one of its current offerings, they'll have a hard time taking their eyes off the curious assortment of household items and found objects strewn about the stage, not to mention the clothesline from which hang creepy cutouts of what look like faces. Add in some dim lighting and swampy sound effects (hooting birds, frogs, and the like) and you've got the offbeat setting for the bizarre and unforgettable shadow-puppet show Swamp Juice, a production that adventurous kids will guzzle down.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Jeff Achtem, the brains behind Swamp Juice as well as its sole performer, packs a lot of fun and creativity into a single hour. He uses several light sources to cast shadows of those hanging faces, of his fingers and head, and of other objects onto large screens and the theater's walls. With those shadows, Achtem acts out a story about a man who likes to taunt animals (among his victims are a snail, a snake, and a bird), and about the chase that one of them takes him on. He goes after Birdie through sea and air, relentlessly pursuing the helpless animal even into the belly of a sea creature. But in the end, Birdie has the last laugh.

Achtem is almost as much fun to watch as his shadow show. With shoeless feet and wispy strands of hair, he wears goggles and speaks in a gruff, whispery voice that sounds like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. Audience members get to participate in part of the chase scenes with some of the stage props, but the real kicker comes at the end when they are handed 3-D glasses. Suddenly those two-dimensional shadows leap to life and into the theater seats as the taunting man relentlessly flies after Birdie in a plane. Though kids will love this part, adults will also likely let out startled laughs at the sight of the man's plane seemingly flying into their faces.

The great thing about a show like this is that it encourages kids to try their own hands at creating a shadow play at home. Most of the props that Achtem uses can be found around the house, and creative youngsters will hopefully get a lot of ideas for making their own shadow-play stories. Some little ones may be frightened by the sea monster, but most kids five and up will get a kick out of the weird yet playful atmosphere that Achtem creates. Parents, however, should get ready to hear the phrase "I'm gonna get you, Birdie" on loop for at least a few days.