"Five, six, seven, eight! You should wash your own plate!" hollers a disgruntled imp waving a placard at passing cars on Bryant Street.
I try not to make eye contact with the hired help, who are on strike less than half an hour after the grand opening of Chez Pantalone, the arbiter elegantiae among Mission District puppet-supper clubs, but social conscience (and the mendacious glint in the owner's eye) gets the better of me.
"What are your complaints?" I ask the three frightful scrub boys standing on my left with mismatched socks, tattered sleeves, and terribly, terribly long noses.
"There are too many plates," laments one.
"There are too many floors," says another.
"He feeds us sock puppets!" cries a third, pointing at the corpulent form of Mssr. Pantalone, who stands ensconced in a pinstriped suit of the richest cabernet hue. "We can't eat sock puppets all of the time."
"These puppets," explains Mssr. Pantalone, stepping out of the doorway to stand between me and the picketing horde, "they are a delicacy. Delicious puppets. You will see. Please, please, pay no attention to these, ahem, men. Your table is waiting. Please, right this way."
Arranged by the CELLSpace Puppet Cluster, and as advertised by last year's patrons of Funky Puppet Supper, Chez Pantalone is at the fine-dining forefront of "warehouse chic." Mismatched couches and chairs complement wood-planked floors and high, raftered ceilings, and, although red tablecloths, flickering candlelight, and delicate arrangements of fall flowers and apples imply elegance, some of the place settings are laid out on old trunks, end tables, and large stools, conjuring memories of those longed-for dinners at your crazy Aunt Millie's house. As the only other customer in the house says, it's magical.
Dr. Abacus, the Pantalone house band, offers a mellifluous shower of old-timey, slightly feral-minded jazz, but there's little opportunity to enjoy the music before Bregella, the oddball maitre d', bustles me upstairs and over a wooden bridge.
Here, in the attic loft, bent over tables strewn with piles of buttons, glitter, hot glue guns, pipe cleaners, ribbons, yarn, and tinsel, are the evening's patrons, a collection of keenly dressed men and women with their hands shoved inside old socks, talking to each other in cartoon voices. Perfunctorily, I select a sock and begin to apply buttons, in the hope of creating a big-eyed giraffe with a soft voice, glittery eyelashes, and slender tongue. Sadly, form often dictates function, and my sock becomes a Parisian sewer rat named Maurice with buckteeth and a slavering lisp. Half an hour later, I am, like the others, so engrossed in puppet conversation that I am hardly able to pause for hors d'oeuvres -- organic tomatoes stuffed with couscous (woefully underseasoned) and apple slices drizzled with tahini-maple syrup -- that come by on platters. Only when a blatantly overdressed woman begins complaining do I remember my real job. I watch as another patron gently explains to the woman that, at Chez Pantalone, one must make puppets in order to ask for one's food. Soon, after the woman burns herself with the hot glue gun, I decide to take my seat.
Of course, Miss Fancy, whose name is Silvia, sits at my table and begins complaining loudly about the lack of hors d'oeuvres and bread. She demands water, which is spilled across her lap by a flustered joker named Arlequino. Desperate for more floor help, Zani, the head busboy, finds some scabs out back who are willing to work for the evening. The grimacing, snarling scab-buffoons enter the restaurant with lumpy butts, pointy heads, and murderous looks in their eyes. They like Silvia, and her purse.
Luckily, the Fou Fou Ha! Dancers perform a delightful clown cancan, and the golden curry soup -- a strident blend of organic carrots, squash, and spices -- almost makes up for a New Age trapeze act that never quite gets off the ground. Luckier still, the plunger-happy buffoon busboys carry off my tetchy dinner companion during the main course. Amid the onerous tamale pie, made from organic black turtle beans and masa, and the bracing cabbage salad with cumin-seed dressing, a love affair emerges between the head chef, Capitano, and Pantalone's daughter, Isabella, whose hand is promised to a goblin-headed restaurant chain investor. Contrary to Pantalone's wishes, Isabella defends Capitano's use of organic foodstuff against the goblin, who favors genetically modified fare. Unfortunately, the food cannot speak for itself, and dessert is better left to the wonderful puppetry of Bob Hartman. Using simple stick puppets, Hartman creates a humorous race between a tortoise and a hare, and a harrowing battle between an ugly duckling and a cobra, but it's his wolf -- a fast-talking, ear-cocking, tail-wagging, smartass in tie and suspenders -- that makes technology (computer animation or genetic engineering) seem pointless.
By the time Capitano and Isabella are united and Silvia is served on a giant platter with an apple in her mouth, everyone -- puppet, buffoon, patron, busboy, and serving clown -- is in the mood to celebrate. Mssr. Pantalone strikes up the band, and the crowd, with sock puppets and children in tow, frolics across the dance floor, leaving me to contemplate the tasteful tedium of future dining experiences.
A woman dressed in a sparkling evening dress stands on a gray street corner in Oakland. Behind her, the warehouse door reads "Chaosium, Inc.," but she directs me down the block, "past the roasting mammal," to the home of the Extra Action Marching Band.
The roasting mammal is a 60-pound lamb, slowly turning on a spit situated in the middle of a loading dock. The Extra Action Marching Band is a swaggering, 35-piece chaos machine with a musical flair. I step under an awning of plastic blue tarps and through a dark doorway. Two rows of candles illuminate a pathway through a cavernous warehouse, which is empty but for a few piles of musty-smelling cement and twisted rebar. The candles lead to a doorway framed by two broken toilets, and I do what anyone would do: I follow the exit signs, through a maze of well-lit hallways, past closed doors and unseen conversations, toward the hall with the rosy light.
Candlelight spills out of the dining room: Lanterns swing from the rafters and a giant, handmade chandelier sways and creaks as seven people struggle to raise it without igniting all the paper bells that hang nearby. Foil balloons twinkle on the ceiling; dim footlights glimmer around an ornate stage festooned with pink fabric; and, in the corner, Elizabeth, a member of the pep squad, strings garlands around the neck of a giant swan. Mutt Mule, a drummer, arrives with a planter of fruit wrapped in plastic and sporting an electrical cord. He dumps several bottles of red wine inside and plugs it in. Wine gurgles out of the planter and splashes across my table. Amatha, a self-proclaimed "XXXtra Action groupie" with big boots, woolly black hair, and a white slip and red, polka-dotted underwear, walks around with a brown paper bag, setting out silverware. The whole room smells of freshly cut wood and candle wax. Guests begin to arrive, dressed in extravagant thrift-store finery -- long satin gloves, tuxedo shirts, beaded dresses -- to mull about the freshly carpentered tables and stools. Simon, tombali-bass player, secures the chandelier and leaps down from the loft to make sure server-musicians are in place; the food, prepared by Darrell and the rest of the Extra Action Marching Band's brass squad, begins to emerge from the kitchen/dressing room -- sweet slices of tomato and mozzarella cheese drizzled with garlic, olive oil, and basil; huge baskets of crusty bread; and steaming trays of spicy sausage. The wine is copious and flowing. The bar is open. Crazy merry-go-round music seeps in from a sound system overhead.
As the salad is served -- organic greens perfectly dressed in shallot vinaigrette and served on unpolished slabs of broken slate -- a sweet-voiced ukulele player named Your Dead Cousin tries to tell a story about his job as a preschool teacher and destroyer of young minds. Sadly, the crowd is too excitable, and soon, the bare-chested Wine Goddess, one of the band's leading ladies dressed in nothing but body jewels and an orange tail feather, is carried out on an ornate litter to hand down bottles of red wine to every table. Then the Starlings, a trapeze duo who double as members of the Extra Action flag team and aerial performing arts instructors, take to the rafters. Amid a flurry of Eastern European folk music, the Starlings perform a trapeze act infused with the passion and severity of tango and the humor of burlesque; it is easily the greatest trapeze act anyone could imagine seeing over salad. A china doll named Cerces emerges in a Victorian ball gown with a model ship sewn into her very high, very long blond hair; she passes out tarot cards to guests, and holds up a lantern while one of the chefs sings opera about "serving the perfect fish" -- to a standing ovation.
The soup is served -- a delicate, buttery roasted-squash purée that leaves me crying when I have to abandon it for the 10-piece mariachi band, which enters the room among more bejeweled and topless beauties. The soup is forsaken for dancing. Tables are hastily removed. Wineglasses are gleefully thrown against the walls until a now topless Cerces emerges onstage with a lantern to announce "The Daring Deeds of Dixie Danger and Pixie Pete!" An accordion player crawls up onto a wrought-iron swing hanging from the ceiling and begins playing while a lithesome, and shirtless, femme crawls through broken glass, running the jagged pieces along her thighs.
The roast turkey is served. The golden-brown bird, placed on top of a large column, awaits carving. Bolts of electricity shoot out of a nearby tesla coil built by Kelek, another member of the flag team. The blue charges beat upon the beams of the warehouse, filling the space with thunderous noise and the sharp smell of ozone. After a seemingly unending lightning storm, the bird is hit. Shreds of bird meat are circulated amongst the crowd, but no one really cares. Despite its moist, delicate flavor, the fowl is all but forgotten. In the center of the crowd, a giant flag is burned and, suddenly, the Extra Action Marching Band is among us, in full uniform, gold flags waving, trumpets blaring, the megaphone litany of Mateo crackling in the post-midnight hours. Controlled circles of fire race across the floor, explosions fill the air, more glasses are broken, more women get naked, and everyone jumps onto chairs, dancing, howling, laughing, praying that nothing important catches fire. Outside, as the early morning dew gathers on the car windshields, the lamb quietly turns on the spit.
"It's OK," says a woman with striped arms and a black fur skirt. "This crowd eats dinner late."