If you had told Ben Folstein that in ten years he’d be starring in his own puppet rock opera in New York City, his younger self probably would have called you crazy.
“No, I never thought I would end up here, no,” Folstein said with a smile. And yet, film school graduate, former freestyler-turned-silent filmmaker Ben Folstein has, in fact, found himself here: Living Greenpoint and starring in his own off-Broadway puppet rock opera, Love is Like Mud.
Love is Like Mud, which opened on October 15th and will run through December 17th at The Tank in Manhattan, is primarily an urban love story: boy meets girl, they fall in lust, then possibly in love, break up and get back together. According to Folstein it’s a fairly straight-forward plot—only that its two main characters, John and Anne, and the show’s narrator, an old and somewhat jaded waiter, are puppets. That, and it’s a musical.
The idea for Love is Like Mud, which Folstein wrote and stars in as John, came to him in a round-about way. Folstein moved to New York five years ago after graduating from film school in New Mexico and subsequently moving to San Francisco. Folstein moved in with Pete Van Leeuwen, co-owner of Greenpoint favorite Van Leeuwen artisanal ice cream, and the two of them started a band, to be known as Level II.
“I was driving to New York and I called Pete and told him that when I got there, we had to start a bar band, we always knew we were destined to start a band anyway,” Folstein said. In college, Folstein had played in bands, and made a name for himself around campus—sort of—as a freestyle rapper. And so, when he arrived in Brooklyn, Level II, the band, was born. “We played for two years in a bunch of crappy bars. Then, I started writing a lot of text, and I sort of realized that something was missing.”
What was missing, he would eventually discover, was puppets. That, and a narrative thread. According to Folstein, Level II was always meant as more of a multi-media musical experiment than a band, per se, and once he decided to write a narrative to accompany the music he’d been working on, Love is Like Mud began to take shape. Puppets, he explained, were a perfect addition: unlike casting live actors, incorporating puppets into a performance allows the focus to fall on the dialogue, the writing and the music itself, played by his Level II bandmates.
“So I decided to write a rock opera with a cohesive narrative. I knew I needed to illustrate it further, so I created a set, like a puppet theater. Also, puppets are so hot right now. People go crazy for puppets,” Folstein said. “Puppets are like cartoons: they allow people to be childish.”
The first incarnation of the show involved a small set and hand puppets. After a short run, Folstein decided to make a larger set, and larger puppets to play the roles. Using puppets afforded Folstein a greater degree of artistic license in terms of the play’s content, as well as its aesthetic. A classically trained filmmaker, Folstein wanted to produce something that looks and feels like a film, with all the nuance, movement and variation of movies, only on a stage. Eventually, Folstein aims to construct three different sized puppets for each character, in order to create depth of field: a large puppet to be used in a close-up—a song solo, perhaps—and small puppets to serve as characters in the background of a scene.
“I’m an extra avid analog person,” Folstein said, “It’s like the original Star Wars, before all the digital stuff—these small things are interacting with big things and you don’t know how. With analog, you’re actually in the magic.”
Using puppets also creates a gritty and physical aesthetic that both Folstein and Van Leeuwen find particularly appealing. Additionally, much of the script is improvisational, making each performance one-of-a-kind.
“It’s like watching minor league baseball,” Folstein said. “When you watch the pros, they never mess up. In the minor leagues, someone might mess up, and you appreciate the players so much more.”
“What’s endearing and lovable about it is the grit,” said Van Leeuwen. “It’s amateur, but it’s graceful and beautiful, too.”
The show is also meant to appeal to audiences who might not otherwise go to the theater: its content is racy, edgy and, like its aesthetic, somewhat risky.
“I want it to feel young,” Folstein said. “If you’re paying all this money, you’re probably going to go see some awesome rock show with bands you love, not a Broadway play. These tickets are only fifteen bucks!”
Love is Like Mud is playing at The Tank theater, 354 W. 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.