Puppet theatre delivers adult message

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January 17, 2014

Ignorance: the evolution of happiness

A play created by the Old Trout Puppet Theatre

Directed by Pete Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer

Blue Bridge at the Roxy

 January 7-19

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Shortly after I took my seat in the third row of the Roxy Theatre, uniformed middle-school students came marching in to fill the rows ahead of me. “Oh-oh,” I thought, “someone didn’t do the homework.”

Sure enough, during the 85 minutes of Ignorance: the evolution of happiness, these children were exposed to explicit sex scenes, death by hanging, murders, and a birth face-on to the audience. Only the fact that the characters were puppets tempered the impact of these scenes. (I surreptitiously tried to scrutinize the students’ faces as they left after the play. They didn’t seem traumatized. I can only surmise they didn’t understand what they were watching.)

Despite the innocent-sounding subtitle, “the evolution of happiness,” Ignorance is a dark tale, filled with the ironic conceit that the harder we pursue happiness, the more miserable we are. Beginning with Adam and Eve in a dark Paleolithic cave, the play moves forward to the modern era where, if anything, the plight of humankind is more wrenching than that of their ancestors.

The narrator, Judd Palmer, tells the audience right up front that the average human being is allotted only about 14 ½ minutes of happiness in his or her entire lifetime, “most of it before the age of 12.”

Eve was the transgressor, of course, but in this play, her fault was to have imagination. Having learned to imagine that the world could be better than it was, she taught humankind dissatisfaction. From then on, no matter how much better our inventive minds made the world, it was never good enough. Over and over again, humans are led astray by yellow happy-face balloons that evade their grasp, get popped, or the cords of which wrap around a pursuer’s throat, strangling him, the agonized spasms of his body quieted only by death.

Nicolas Di Gaetano, Viktor Lukawski and Trevor Leigh, dressed in identical black one-piece tights, each with a hood crowned by a single horn, gave voice (mostly cries of anguish) and movement to the puppets. As is fitting for this existential tale, their own movements were at once graceful and athletic, almost, at times, a ceremonial dance. So adept were they that, although always visible, they sometimes seemed to disappear, transforming the puppets from simple rocks, hanks of hair and arms made of sticks into trembling beings filled with human passion and suffering.

The dramatic effects were enhanced by a somber, almost classical, orchestral score and a rear projector used at times to illuminate a wall of the prehistoric cave, a nod to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop began in Calgary in 1999. Since then, it’s toured seven productions across Canada, into the United States and as far away as Europe. Ignorance was first developed at a creative residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 2011, through a process of “Open Creation,” in which the basic idea of the show was posted on the Internet so that anybody could comment, contribute or criticize.

Ignorance is the first show in the new “Presenter’s Series,” a series of contemporary plays, hosted by Blue Bridge at the Roxy. It’s a powerful and auspicious beginning. If you can get to the Roxy before the play closes on January 19, you’re in for a moving experience.

But leave the kids at home.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

 

 

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