“I don’t know why, but people like to see puppets swear and have sex,” says Andrew McNeal. “There’s a lot of vulgarity and curse words you shouldn’t say in public but can get away with if you have a sock puppet on your hand.”

McNeal should know. He and his partners in Harvey Finklestein’s Institute of Whimsical, Fantastical, and Marvelous Puppet Masterage first came to relative fame last year with their production of Sock Puppet Showgirls, a profane 30-minute send-up of Paul Verhoeven’s famously bad 1995 film. The group originally intended to do a few free late-night performances of Showgirls–enacted by homemade sock puppets–for friends at Rogers Park’s Side Studio. But after positive reviews of the show (which included plenty of sex and lots of unscripted giggling) brought in sellout crowds, they extended the run and started charging admission. After five months Showgirls moved to the Noble Fool Theater’s Loop cabaret, where it ran for an additional two months. Their next production, The Branson Family Comedy Christian Cavalcade, was a critical bomb, but, says company member Stephanie Shaterian, “We’ve taken a lot of things we learned from Showgirls and Branson and have been able to progress.” Now they’re about to try their hand at a naughty Christmas show.

Four of the five original members of the group–McNeal and his wife, Sasha, and Shaterian and her husband, John–first met in 1999, when Sasha, Stephanie, and John (then her fiance) worked at the Jekyll and Hyde Club–a Near North theme restaurant designed to resemble a haunted Victorian mansion. (Jen Jolls–who played the lead in Showgirls–left after Branson closed in April.)

The trio, all aspiring actors, split their time at the restaurant between providing the voices for 28 animatronic puppets and “walking around in stupid outfits and talking to people,” says Stephanie. They bonded during smoke breaks and after work, when they’d meet Andrew–also an actor–for drinks. “Most of the actors were young and pretty much just out of college and new to Chicago,” says Stephanie. “We were like, ‘We’re getting paid $10 an hour to act!'”

The job didn’t last, but the couples remained friends. They hatched the idea for Showgirls with Jolls while watching the 2002 Super Bowl. “I had talked about wanting to do a sock puppet show like Oedipus Rex or something,” says John. “But the more beer we drank, the crazier the ideas got.”

They chose as their figurehead a yellow plush puppet given to John by a friend’s grandmother as a “dammit doll.” (“Whenever you get mad,” he says, “you hit it against something and go ‘Dammit, dammit, dammit!'”) They christened the toy “Harvey Finklestein,” endowed him with the mouth of a sailor, and installed him as the troupe’s “executive president.”

After Showgirls and Branson, the Institute contributed a trio of 15-minute puppet spoofs of reality TV shows to the Noble Fool’s weekend cabaret. Their latest endeavor, A Puppet Christmas Carol, is a foulmouthed version of the Dickens classic that features a Tiny Tim in a plastic bubble (aka a hamster ball) and several types of puppets in addition to the trademark socks. One, a $7 knockoff of Sheri Lewis’s famous Lambchop, has a bloodied stunt double. “We try to beat up Lambchop in every show,” says Sasha–it was gang-raped in Showgirls and played Jesus in Branson.

It’s just good, dirty fun, she says. “We want people to remember what it was like when they were five or six and watching a puppet show. People get into that frame of mind, and then we do naughty things and they giggle. It’s a very childlike experience.”

A Puppet Christmas Carol opens Saturday, November 22, at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, and runs through January 3. Performances are Saturday at 10:30 PM, and tickets are $10, $5 if you see the Hell in a Handbag production of Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer that precedes it at 8. For more information call 312-458-9135 or see www.harveyfinklestein.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.