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Theater Review (NYC): ‘Baby Universe’

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An explosion; a blinding light. A new universe is born, the best hope for the remnant of mankind in a dystopian future.

The inventive Norwegian-American group Wakka Wakka is back, this time with more puppets and puppeteers and a bigger story to tell than in their acclaimed Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, which in 2008 received a Drama Desk nomination in the Unique Theatrical Experience category.

Wakka Wakka certainly does go its own way. Its menagerie of marvelous puppets includes tiny creatures and toys operated at the end of wires, life-size puppets held by puppeteers, a big puppet made out of a shambling conglomeration of person and props, and the list goes on. Adding to the magic are pinpoint lighting, explosive sounds, buzzsaw music, whimsical projections, clever (even cinematic) use of scale, and—easy to glide over in such a context—effective acting.

 


Baby Universe’s mother

 

The cosmically surreal story takes place in a grim future where an expanding Sun is rapidly baking the Earth to a crisp. Huddled underground, the surviving humans reach out to the stars for a new Earth to settle, but not in the expected way. Rather than straightforwardly attempting the kind of space travel we’ve read about in countless science fiction tales, their scientists are attempting to create and nurture their own brand-new universe into which they can escape. Their latest hope: an adorable infant universe.

The puppet is voiced by Peter Russo. I mention that not because Mr. Russo stands out—the cast is uniformly strong—but because this troupe stresses seamless immersiveness rather than star turns, not even crediting the puppeteers as such in the program. What they do so well is plunge us into wildly imaginative universes. And this one is a universe of universes, including ones that haven’t quite made it—baby universes that have started promisingly but died, with malformed lungs and weak hearts, in spite of their adoptive mothers’ love. Until now.

Our cute hero, Baby Universe 7001, is every creature that starts small and mother-dependent and then blossoms to self-sufficiency. What makes this story partly tragic is that his fate is not to grow to a satisfying adulthood; he’s destined to make a great sacrifice for the good of all. The Sun, played by a startling stilt-puppet (which elicited audience gasps), is meanwhile dying, cruelly taking all the planets with him.

 


The Sun, as a dying, giant red star, and Baby Universe

 

Are we billions of years in the future? If so, why is there a radio station? Or is something more freakish happening? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. The show invites us to plunge into this universe of universes not knowing what’s going to happen. A seeming plot flub weakens the ending (“It’s too late!” warns the evil Moon…but then it isn’t too late at all). But for clever creativity, sweet whimsy, and wondrous storytelling it’ll be hard to beat Baby Universe this holiday season. It runs through January 9, 2011, deep below the streets of Manhattan in the appropriately subterranean Baruch Performing Arts Center.  (Note: while the show is considered appropriate for children 7 and up, it is an adult show, with at least one very scary moment.)

Photos by Jim Baldassare.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.