Even a day later, I still don’t know what to make of Famous Puppet Death Scenes.
I felt a pang of regret last year when I missed the Calgary’s troop’s performance at the Roxy, having heard many good things about them, so I made sure to note the date of their return engagement in 2008. On Tuesday, we joined a full house to watch re-enactments of the most macabre moments in puppet theatre history.
A fairly standard puppet theatre frame, with a large curtained window flanked by two smaller ones, greeted us on stage. Everything started out well enough, with a rubber puppet resembling a face crafted out of an upside-down chin doing its best to elude a stalking wooden fist intent on destroying it. Scenes featuring this figure doing its best to dodge death (accompanied by some upbeat, trumpet-blaring music) were sprinkled throughout the play, and were always a welcome sight. I couldn’t help but laugh at the way its arms would flop as he did a happy dance.
A host figure (who looked like a green-tinged Albert Einstein) was used as a unifying force of sorts, trying to stitch together the individual scenes by posing thoughtful questions. But with some of the rather comic deaths following such requested introspection, pointed reflection quickly dissolved into laughter. Still, the sequences that were punctuated with humor ended up being my favourites, including the squeaky-voiced German figures that had to choose between two fateful doors, game-show style, or the futuristic, immortal Johnny Depp-lookalike aliens who had no concept of death. Unfortunately, funny was few and far between. The majority of the scenes involved more symbolic, solemn representations of death, such as the role of time in its erosion of life (in the morose but excruciatingly slow The Cruel Sea), the long, telling blink from a single large eye in The Last Whale, or the flight of King Jeff the Magnificent through space. By the end of the play, I was so exhausted from trying to stay awake that any profound message I was meant to gather would have been lost on me.
Content aside, I did appreciate the craftsmanship that must have gone into the puppets themselves. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop demonstrated their expertise with different types of material and a variety of styles, including marionettes and hand puppets. Mack liked the distinct backdrops used to set the individual scenes, which helped the viewer imagine the type of world that particular puppet inhabited (the alley created for The Beast of Muggditch Lane had great lighting too).
While I don’t deny the chance that I simply didn’t understand what the company was trying to get across, I think it is quite possible as well that the premise of the play – funnelling through unrelated, random sequences from multiple sources – may ultimately have reduced the connection that could be fostered between characters and an audience throughout the course of a full-length play. So although death was the common link throughout, Famous Puppet Death Scenes was too plodding and scattered for me to recommend.