The puppeteers of Wakka Wakka (Fabrik, Baby Universe) are back, this time with a fiery tragicomedy about an Icelandic family swept asunder by a deadly convergence of personal hubris and the national banking crisis. As is their wont, the troupe dons dark head-to-toe outfits which, this time, serve not just to black out their full-sized human forms but to transform them into dancing, mop-topped horses.
Animals signify continually in this tale of hard-luck homesteaders. Gunnar, Helga, and their little son Oli have moved into a big house by the sea with the dream of turning it into a bed and breakfast complete with a luxurious outdoor jacuzzi “so big you can swim” in it. The horses caper about; a sheep is sheared (how often do you see that onstage, even with puppets?); a puffin devours a crab; gulls drift languidly overhead.
But it’s not only birds who fly about. As Gunnar sifts through a pile of bills, furiously deciding which to pay now and which to put off, and as the authorities declare a state of emergency and urge the population to hang tough, we learn that Gunnar has gotten the family into a terrible financial mess. The bills, like white bats, flap around his head chirping “Pay me!” until, in frustration, the proud and stubborn Gunnar burns them in the trash. But when out of that trash can the first mythic avatar of his fate emerges, there’s no turning back.
In addition to puppet figures of all sizes, the Wakka Wakka ensemble proves once again showily adept at using clever effects and suggestion to show us a great many things not always easy to convey in puppetland: fire, water, earth, birds of the air (in other words, all four elements); the gentleness as well as the violence in the lives of animals; and the fundamental animal savagery of humans, whether it’s murder or graphic sex. (This isn’t a show for children.)
SAGA starts off funny and carries a humorous strain through further scenes, but lives up to what its name suggests: the idea that the petty humans of today continue to play their parts in the ongoing Norse sagas that continue to, among other things, inspire some of the cleverest and most skillful performers on the puppet stage. And don’t we all feel like puppets sometimes, at the mercy of banks and speculators and rich folks who can buy and sell what we most value: in Gunnar’s case, his very land, and with it his manhood?
SAGA runs through April 14 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 1-866-811-4111.