Just yesterday, it seems, he was sweet and loving – waking me in the morning with a whiskery nuzzle, greeting me joyfully when I came home from work. Now, my every attempt to get or give attention or affection is met with a cold shoulder. He’s happy to eat my food and live under my roof, but if I so much as stroke his hair he practically bites my hand off. I have no idea what I did wrong, and the more I apologize the quieter he gets.

I’m talking, of course, about OJ, the leonine housecat that’s recently deigned to take up residence with me (I wouldn’t dare imply that I own him). How did I, an allergic misanthrope who had a largely pet-free childhood, become so quickly conditioned to agonize over the unpredictable emotions of an 11-pound ball of orange fluff? I have to lay the blame for this, like so many other things, on PBS. Prolonged exposure to Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood must have imprinted me with an unconscious empathy for small, fuzzy creatures, particularly ones with passive-aggressive personality disorders – damn you, Daniel Striped Tiger!

That’s a long way of explaining why, as I mentioned at the end of last week’s column, I was preconditioned to enjoy Beyond Geppetto, last week’s puppetry-themed 1st Thursdays event at Orlando Museum of Art. I’ll also confess that my past issues with this artistic monthly assembly were at least partially exacerbated by the fact that it always seems to monopolize the Loch Haven parking lots when I’m opening a show at the Shakes. The parking congestion hasn’t improved (I’d tell you about my secret spot, but then I’d have to kill you), but I can’t complain since everyone there seemed to be attending for the art as much as for the “scene,” something I couldn’t always say.

My first impression (after the ticket taker, who was a bit overaggressive in encouraging crowd flow) was being overwhelmed by an oversized marionette in the form of Frankie Messina (Apartment E), decked out in day-glo like a demented Rasta Raggedy Andy. The freakily festooned Frankie and his wrangler Andy Jones were part of the Puppet Crawlers performance, which sent stringed silliness scampering through the Norman Rockwell exhibit, much (I’m sure) to the docents’ dismay. Kudos to organizer Anna McCambridge for attracting a refreshingly diverse audience: I ran into sculptor/solid cat Wavy Davy, a few friends from the fetish and fashion troupe AntiBabe, and other folks who might on another occasion draw a hairy eyeball from OMA security.

The gallery featured a fine selection of puppets and puppet-inspired artwork (though I could swear someone sneaked in a couple of well-sculpted bongs), along with interactive opportunities like a make-your-own-shadow puppet screen. But I looked to the performances to breathe life into the inanimate, in the spirit of the event’s namesake. Heather Henson’s solo short Deer Borne was a highlight: I didn’t quite get the significance of the fetal foal with a human face, but this Native American–tinged tone poem had a Björk-like beauty. (Too bad a seating-space shortage kept more people from seeing it.) I was intrigued by master kite-flyer Curtiss Lee Mitchell’s experiments with opalescent indoor aerial acrobatics, and I caught a tantalizing glimpse of Dudley and the Toy Keepers Chest, Patrick Algermissen’s cute and creepy film about an ensouled toy lamb.

For me, the best things about the evening were those unexpected, inexplicable moments that arise spontaneously in the presence of puppets. I found myself chasing an afghan elephant with my camera phone as it cavorted around the Chihuly. I watched 10-year-old Jonathan Blasco play with his dad Tom’s Worm Circus! rod puppets, which were much more freakily phallic than I remember Guy Smiley ever being. And I caught a glimpse of Chupacabra’s psychic schtick, which was amusingly incompetent enough to make the Amazing Criswell proud. I only wish it all didn’t have to end at 9 p.m. Puppets aren’t just for kids, and the successful event deserved a grown-up bedtime.

P.S.: As I was finishing this article, a purring OJ crawled into my lap, allowing me to scratch under his outstretched chin for 20 blissful minutes. And once again, all is right with the world.

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