Actors are advised to avoid sharing the stage with kids and dogs because they steal the show. Maybe puppets should be included. Joe Goode's hero in Wonderboy is a not-quite-three-foot concoction of wood, plaster, and cloth. He is adorable and you can't take your eyes off him. Master puppeteer Basil Twist gave him his body; Goode and his dancers gave him a soul.
With this world premiere Goode has created one of his most poetic works in years. It is not to be missed. He has done so with five new dancers who seem to have inspired choreography as richly physical as any he has done. The piece's floating lifts, wrestling holds, and tumbling rolls looked spontaneous but were finely shaped. A male-female duet spoke of tortuous relationships with fury and compassion; a quartet for four bare-chested males came across as erotic and tender.
Melecio Estrella, Mark Stuver, and Jessica Swanson gave the puppet its brittle and slightly raspy voice for a narrative by Goode and what he called "some of the wonderboy artists and thinkers" he has known. He explored a question that has preoccupied him for his entire career: how does an outsider find a place for himself in life? Bringing his customary tenderness, wit, and melancholy to the inquiry, he rarely hit a wrong note. Wonderboy's outsider character begins life as a sensitive little boy who watches the world from the safety of his home (designed by Dan Sweeney). Gradually he steps out and encounters rejection, rage, and love especially with dancer Andrew Ward before finally finding a community of his own. Twist coached Goode's six dancers in the nuances of puppetry to exquisitely animate the nuances of the boy's trajectory.
The program opens with excerpts from the 1996 installation piece, Maverick Strain. The Western barroom scene includes two hard-drinking hookers (Patricia West plays the confused one, Swanson the tough one). As a lounge singer (music by the brilliant Beth Custer), Goode is never less than a star as is Alexander Zendzian as a transvestite rape victim, in a performance that chills the soul.
JOE GOODE PERFORMANCE GROUP
Fri/13Sat/14, 8 p.m.; Sun/15, 7 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater
700 Howard, SF
(415) 978-ARTS, www.ybca.org