Last month, the Providence Phoenix celebrated its 30th birthday party at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel. An hour into the party, several grotesque, googly eyed creatures ran into the lobby and ambushed the crowd, which included Mayor David Cicilline '83, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, former Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci and even celebrity daytime judge Maria Lopez.
The venue's security personnel stood idly by, arms folded, staring blankly forward. The celebrities recovered, and the monsters grabbed instruments and took the stage. They lampooned Sen. John McCain and caricatured a city cop. The show was emceed by an astronaut and heckled by a chicken. Jabba the Hut was on drums.
The crowd of hundreds was baffled, and even the most loyal barflies hovered toward the stage. The members of the "Big Nazo" band knew they had done their job.
Big Nazo is a collection of about 25 people that constructs creatures and then becomes them. They are full-time and part-time. They are both artisans and musicians, from age 17 to 60. The group performs local gigs and high-profile festivals like the Treasure Island Music Festival and the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. Off-stage, the monsters perform street theater or sometimes just walk around acting human, without looking the part. Big Nazo has even mock-catered an event at the State House - its monsters in full waiter regalia - with platters of "inedible things," according to Big Nazo founder and artistic director Erminio Pinque.
The Big Nazo lab stares down City Hall on the corner of Westminster and Eddy streets, and from the outside looks like FAO Schwarz's evil twin. The large plate glass windows lining the building are crammed with bulbous, amused-looking beings that seem to equally deter and draw in wary onlookers.
Before Big Nazo moved in five years ago - the group used to occupy a space in the Providence Performing Arts Center - 60 Eddy St.'s window was filled with Omegas and Swatches - not oversized warthogs.
Though now far from a watch store, it's unclear the lab has an established identity - both to locals on the outside and workers on the inside.
Conor Landenberger, a recent Wheaton College graduate and part-time waiter, said they "always offer to fix the watches" to confused customers who haven't clued in to the change.
"Most people think we're a costume shop," said Meg McKenna, who builds costumes and tours with the band when she's not working at a local construction company.
Pinque, upon graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983, became a street performer and puppet maker in Providence. In 1985, Pinque left for Europe with his favorite puppet and "fell into the street-theater circles" there. It was from his experience in Italy that Pinque was inspired to name his group of body puppets Big Nazo.
In Italy, he said, no one is ashamed of having a "grande naso," or a big nose. "Here, everyone wants to get a nose job," he said, covering up his own grande naso in jest.
Big Nazo officially became a performance group upon Pinque's return to the U.S. in 1987.
The Big Nazo lab is a bodyshop of foam tentacles, bellies, eyeballs and heavy noses. Inhabited by costume makers and professional musicians alike, the sickly green arms, red claws and wart-ridden body suits can be stacked on top of each other like Babushka dolls or worn one at a time. The pieces are engineered out of foam and coated with rubber latex and acrylic paint.
Like its characters, the Big Nazo group itself is known to change appearances from one hour to the next.
Street parades, rock festivals and war protests are all on Big Nazo's resume. Simply appearing in public establishes what Pinque calls the disruption of "normal conduct."
"If someone isn't used to being surprised, then they don't know how to react when something is going to come unhinged," Pinque said.
In working with children at schools, parades and festivals, Pinque derives much of his inspiration not only to subvert the supposed "real" meaning of our perceptions, but also to add a new dimension to discussions about diversity and tolerance.
As a child, Pinque said, "you hear a boiler and you think it's a dinosaur coming up the stairs. You hear that noise and you have no idea."
At a performance at a Warwick elementary school last Wednesday, several Big Nazo creatures were revealed as alien beings that actually lived inside the school. The children, initially alarmed by the gruesome, loping things, were told that the monsters were scared of them as well.
Inspiration for characters and perfomances, in turn, comes in part from child's play. The lab, during rehearsal time, turns into a playroom in which the monsters learn how to best act out their roles.
"It's no different from kids coming to a house with a bunch of toys," Pinque said. " 'I've got a Luke Skywalker with a Barbie mobile,' 'I've got a G.I. Joe with kung fu grip.'"
Though Pinque does not design performances explicitly to educate, he aims to shift the way we conceive of human interaction and differences.
"We never have any desire to convince or try for anything - we try to be true to our own experiment," he said. "Ironically, we're trying to reveal (ourselves) and create a change that allows people to reveal what they feel."
Anyone, Pinque argues, can benefit from the confusion of a Big Nazo performance. Grabbing a female doll - one of the few that exists all in one piece - Pinque dances around with her swiftly, swinging and throwing her in the air. Done quickly, it is unclear whether there is a person in the suit or not. During shows, the dance often draws the most gasps from the audience - even once the crowd realizes no person risks injury.
"We have this illusion that we understand everything, so we create a state of wonder," Pinque said.
The group, according to Pinque, thrives on playing with accepted notions of identity and reality.
One of his favorite moments in their shows is when one of the especially menacing creatures calmly walks on stage, sits down and reads a book.
Pinque compares the creatures, inert in the lab and alive in performance, to ceremonial tribal masks. Though "displayed on walls ... you are going to respect the power that the masks are imbued with," he said. "They have to be brought to life."