And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? A haunting new show from The Old Trouts at Theatre Network: a review

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by Jason Stang.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

At the start of Jabberwocky there’s a momentous drum roll, and a classic old-school red velvet theatre curtain parts — to reveal another. Which parts to reveal … another. Which….

Ah yes, layers of anticipation and further mysteries within: it’s a Trout specialty. The latest from Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, now getting its world premiere at Theatre Network, is an invitation into the dark wood where dangers lurk, nightmares hatch, and epic stories are born.

It is no surprise that The Trouts, a puppet troupe of weird and wonderful imaginative scope and originality, have been inspired by the Victorian fantasy-master and riddler Lewis Carroll. Theirs is a theatre that plays hide and seek with the big existential questions: life, death, happiness, desire, art. Death. The Trouts are big on death.

In the hands (and occasionally fins, tentacles, trotters) of puppets, the Trout theatre is a miniaturized forum for dream logic, grotesque images, free-associative games, surreal images,  playful anachronism.

In this new piece, by Judd Palmer, Peter Balkwill and Pityu Kenderes, they’ve gravitated to Carroll’s great nonsense poem Jabberwocky. In Through the Looking-Glass, there it sits unexplained, embedded in one of literature’s most indelible adventures, a baffling and irresistible piece of verbal sculpture, to be perused from every possible angle (including upside down),. ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves….”

Unfolding in the jogging nonsense verse, peppered with neologisms and rhymed like an incantation, Carroll’s poem seems to record a grave danger, a great fear, a solemn warning passed between the generations (”beware the Jabberwock, my son!”), a heroic expedition against a monster — and a celebration of a triumphant return (“come to my arms, my beamish boy!”). 

The fateful red curtain finally opens on scenes of a dark, free-floating world, in the air, on the ground, under the sea, where every creature has its own monsters and nightmares. And what happens after that is the story of how we get born in struggle, emerge as questers into the world, and grow up to take our fathers’ vorpal sword in hand to do battle with our demons, the ones we inherit and the ones we own. It’s the portrait of the hero as a young  … rabbit, an Everyrabbit. 

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by: Jason Stang

In Jabberwocky, the storytelling is both innovative and affectionately tuned to archaic theatre tradition. The “puppet theatre” is a Victorian mechanism: a series of metal frames with pulley, which seems to have landed in the surrounding darkness of the Roxy. Rolls of painted canvas hang on metal frames, present the settings. They’re cranked by human agency to reveal landscapes, domestic interiors, urban high-rise jungles.

Trout production credits are always an ensemble affair, shared between performance and artisanship. But kudos to the sound cues, unfailingly inventive and apt.

As for the characters, they play with scale and dimension (2-D vs. 3-D) in ingenious ways. The Trout canon over the years is an archive of shows that redefine “puppet” and thereby change up the relationship between puppet and puppeteer. There has never been a Trout show that looks like this one.

The puppets include life-sized rabbits (which is to say humans with exquisitely sculpted rabbit heads atop their own). There are small rod puppets characters set in motion in captivating ways by humans in full view. There are 2-D cut-outs of every size and shape, strange fantastical creatures, giant morphing frogs, fish and unidentifiable serpents, propelled by humans to vanish behind the screens. Phantasmagorical clusters of antique soldiers charge by, or knights, or monster school teachers from our hero’s past. There are memorable visions of urban life as nightmare, populated by grotesque party animals or oppressed by mindless routine. There are visions of the past.

Pop art meets Victoriana in the strange scene in which our hero is formed, by the invasion of an egg by a take-charge sperm. There’s a pop-up storybook look to scenes in which our young hero, at every stage of his life, is flattened by a cut-out bully, who’s faster, flashier, more aggressive — and gets the girl. 

Jabberwocky, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by Jason Stang.

 The domestic scenes, in which we see the little fellow, at his father’s knee, playing with his small-scale vorpal sword, are touching and heart-felt, in a very human sort of way. The mother does the ironing,  enwreathed in steam. The father listens to the old stories on a crackling radio. The young rabbit aspires to confront what most he fears. It’s what we do. 

In every case, the Jabberwocky puppeteers, which is to say a very agile, physically expressive cast of four, aren’t invisible dark-clad proles. The puppeteers are fully visible. Even when they wear the rabbits’ heads, which magically seem to change expression with the merest adjustment in an ear or an angle, their own faces peek out underneath.

What the play seems to be after is the  sense of a grand old story, replayed and retold till it’s engrained in the collective unconscious. It’s applied like layers of antique varnish on our own terrors, our battles, our disappointments, our sense of all-enveloping mortality, till they glow.

We humans are haunted beings. And this is a marvellous theatrical adventure, fantastical and ingenious and somehow close to home, that leaves us breathless at every turn into dark corners where our fears lie waiting for us — along with our heart. Can we keep the Jabberwock at bay? The finale is very moving.

REVIEW

Jabberwocky

Theatre: The Old Trout Puppet Workshop

Created by: Judd Palmer, Peter Balkwill, Pity Menderes

Starring: Nicolas Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanov, Pityu Kenderes, Sebastian Kroon

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Nov. 26

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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