Tuesday, December 07, 2010

THEATER: Baby Universe

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Puppets are rarely taken seriously, so it says a lot about the puerile premise of Wakka Wakka's Baby Universe that the terrifically designed and meticulously operated puppets are the most serious part of their show. Much like The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, the show takes place in an apocalyptic future, with humanity on a desperate mission to save itself -- in this case, from a dying galaxy in which the sun, in one last burst of apocalyptic heat, is burning out. The elaborate scheme of the slapstick scientists (Kirjan Waage and Andrew Manjuck) is to birth a new universe, 7001 (Peter Russo), and to have its "mother" (Gwendolyn Warnock) raise it out of its big-bang infancy to a state of growth large enough such that it can be entered by the remnants of humankind, represented here by the resolutely un-dour host of Apocalypse Radio (Manjuck).

Wakka Wakka's last show here, Fabrik, was an excellent and heartbreaking work, but it was grounded by its subject matter: the Holocaust. This time around, they are untethered by anything realistic: their choices absolve humanity of its environmental recklessness (the Earth is fine; it's the Sun that is dying) and the play carefully skirts the morality of medical testing by largely ignoring the previous seven thousand "failed" baby universes, and by making the scientists such bumbling and innocuous fools. And while Baby Universe resembles a child's fairy tale, especially with a sinister Sun (Manuck) and Moon (Waage) creeping in the shadows, working to abduct and destroy 7001, the play has no consequences, no moral ending.

The puppetry is admirable, and shows a variety of styles: from hand-and-rod babies to hand-in-puppet adults and actor-in-giant-puppet-suit planets. The aesthetic choices work well, too: the Bunraku outfits of the ensemble (which also includes Melissa Creighton) resemble a cross between spacesuits and apocalyptic protective wear (gas masks), and the set (designed by Wakka Wakka and Joy Wang) shows the increasing emptiness of the dying galaxy. But the technical and artistic choices are meant to enhance existing material, material which, in the case of Baby Universe, is largely absent. For a while, it is enough to simply watch the adorable 7001 in its infancy: it can detach limbs in order to play ball with itself, treat its penis like a dog that plays tricks, and throw a cosmic-level tantrum. But at some point, the play needs to grow up; its inability to do so shows a failure on the part of its parents at Wakka Wakka.

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