Friday, July 09, 2010

Underground Zero: The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer

Hollywood has it all wrong: in the box-office bomb Waterworld, the world was submerged and they thought what interested audiences was a tale of piracy and war. But in Tim Watts's brilliant The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer, he realizes that what really grabs the audience is the loneliness of an empty world, the tragedy of something as simple as a broken heart. Using puppets, Gorey-like animations, and a Wiimote controller of all things (who says video games aren't art?), Watts lights up the dark depths of the theater with his imaginative heart. See, what Watts understands about the theater, and about true storytelling (as opposed to that Hollywood schlock), is that he doesn't need to throw more money into special effects or to use the entirety of the stage--he sticks to a tiny porthole-sized sliver. He just needs to be true.

The result, Alvin Sputnik, is a whimsical fantasy, one of the few shows that's easily recommended both to kids and adults--it's certainly no darker than a Burton-Disney film (though with the Elfman-esque score, it often comes across as one). Even the pre-show introduction is swept up in Watts's world: he quickly makes digital sketches of cellphones and cameras and x's them out; what he leaves--with several check-marks next to it--is simply a smiling face. But don't let that childish simplicity fool you: the play begins with a wet-suit clad Watts-as-Alvin holding a bundle of rags that represent his fading wife, and continues with him paddling his boat in a heart-shaped circle in pursuit of a ball of light that he believes to be his wife's soul.

The real action, however, begins once Alvin arrives at Earth HQ. After watching a fail-blog worthy series of attempts to restore land to Earth, he's tasked with diving deep beneath the ocean in search of a volcano that spews oxygen, a volcano that is attached to the hollow earth within. Watts deftly narrates all of this while strumming a ukulele-looking instrument, then switches over to a hand-puppet version of the deep-sea-helmeted Alvin. For the remainder of the play, he recreates a magical watery landscape with the most minimalist of techniques, from plastic-bagged jellyfish to a disco-light ball and its brief montage moments of unexpected happiness (including a great use of Mika's "Happy Ending"). Sweet, enchanting, sorrowful, hopeful, and intermittently brilliant, it's hard to ask for more in a forty-five-minute-long show.

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