PHOTO COURTESY OF JASON STANG PHOTOGRAPHY
June 14 – 17
Martha Cohen Theatre
I was extremely pleased when I learned that The Old Trout Puppet Workshop was one of the participating companies in this year’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival. As a relatively recent transplant to Calgary, I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see one of their whacky and weird creations. This despite being told over and over and over again that I must. Enough already! I’m going!
Ignorance is the name of the Trout’s Festival play and it was created in a rather unusual method they are calling Open Creation. Seems they started with the idea of a puppet documentary about happiness, how it evolved and why we can’t hold onto it, then posted what they wrote online for everyone to look at, comment on and contribute to.
I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “if you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die” and while I’m sure she was speaking about charity or some other lofty purpose, the notion works here as well. Whatever collaborative efforts produced this unique play are certainly entertaining enough to keep our interest in the production very much alive, if not altogether satisfied with the play as a whole.
The story operates via the documentary style narrative indicative of nature programs. A deep knowing resonant voice introduces us to a grunting cave man and woman and explains their every move from the time they meet to the time they imagine a life beyond the cave to their searching for happiness Eden-style and their ultimate fate. But make no mistake, these are no regular cave puppets. The Old Trouts take puppeteering to a whole different level beyond quirky with their creations. Operated by men in full steel-blue hooded long johns, the cave puppets are half formed grotesquely cute creatures that resemble neither Neanderthal or cartoon figure. The operators are perfectly visible on stage with their creations and often their human form injects upon the puppet action. So bare human legs become the female gams of the cave woman, arms become puppets appendages and so on for the various characters in the play.
As we learn about the origins of happiness and how it began via the cave couple’s story, we are intermittently flash forwarded to a surreal modern time where happiness has been identified, obtained and overtaken by despair. The Trouts give us several vignettes illustrating this from haunting beautiful scene of a man jumping off a building, to a parallel parker with road rage to a suitor’s hopes dashed by a man with more pizzazz. While these modern puppets are certainly look more human-like, they are eerily strange in their out-of-whack head sizes and lumpy body shapes.
Recurring throughout the modern scenes is a yellow balloon with a smiley face on in representing happiness. A very dark and vengeful kind of happiness. No matter which vignette the balloon appears in, its promises of joy proves to be a rouse to either kill its hopeful victim or cause some other kind of harm. As the all-knowing voice-over tells us, the pursuit of happiness and the never-ending search for it ultimately leads to despair. Or more tangibly, “the ant always dies with hope in his heart”.
To say the play has a bleak message would be an understatement, yet despite the depressing notion that we are all heading away from happiness, the play gives us this notion wrapped in a very cleverly funny package. It is dark humour done very well and it allows the Trouts to keep the audience laughing throughout the show at their amusing physicality, absurd scenarios and fantastical puppet creatures. Big kudos must go the Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Trevor Leigh for their onstage magic with these characters and to Judd Palmer for his narration. Double kudos go to this group as well for their direction of the play, which despite some slow moments, kept the weird and sometimes disconnected action onstage moving along in an extremely visually interesting and challenging manner.
However even with the magnificent performance and bizarrely imaginative staging, sets, video and puppets, I still felt like something was missing. For me that was the substance of the message. In being so very cynical about the ability of humans to grasp happiness, I found the Trouts missed the opportunity to really discuss and explore the idea. Instead of giving us a true evolution of happiness or the lack thereof, we get too many one liners and set-up jokes. Instead of showing a progression of human behaviour we get jerky scene switches from cave people to unrelated modern otherworldly scenarios. Instead of something to really chew on after the show, all we’re left with is a feeling that what we saw was really cool.
Personally, I wanted to leave Ignorance with a feeling that was far less fleeting than the Trouts make happiness out to be.
For the guys and the girls – Bizarre and funny with some gender politics thrown into the mix. If you can work through the slow parts and those scenes that seem out of place, there’s lots of good stuff here. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Far too weird and non-linear for your tastes. Not a “fun” night in the theatre. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Even though the story itself is lacking, the production and the performances are spectacular. In this case, it’s reason enough to go. SEE IT