nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
December 3, 2010
Baby Universe achieves something incredibly rare: convincing theatrical science fiction. The show is set in the distant future when our Sun, having run the course of its life, has inevitably exhausted its fuel and expanded into a dying red giant, scorching its planets in the process. The surviving humans live out their lives in underground bunkers, awaiting the end of their species. Their one hope, however, is the Baby Universe program, wherein seedling universes (in the form of adorable, star-covered homunculi) are left in the care of lonely spinsters, in the hope that one of these universes might produce a planet to which the remaining humans could relocate. Far out though it may seem, this conceit is based on some cutting-edge theoretical physics that suggests that black holes are the points at which new universes—our own included—bud off from each other, and moreover that with increasingly powerful particle accelerators we may one day be able to create small black holes of our own under controlled conditions. The play recounts the story of Baby Universe #7001 through his birth, maturation, and eventual journey to save humanity. Delightfully written by co-directors Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock, the plot is deeply familiar, drawing heavily from classic archetypes of the hero's journey, but through astute pacing also manages to avoid disappointing predictability.
Apart from the occasional interludes of the inappropriately cheery Apocalypse Radio, the entire story is told through the puppets created by Waage. These exceptionally well-designed puppets are more of the big-eyed, Saturday morning television variety than the artsy, experimental theatre sort; think Jim Henson over Julie Taymor. Standouts include the Moon, a sinister blue gentleman with eerily long legs that flap out behind him as he flies through space; the hulking Sun, bursting through the seams of his red pinstripe suit; and the titular Baby Universe, whose growing, budding body serves as a continuous source of surprising sight gags. Perhaps most impressive about the puppetry is the apparent emotional range achieved in their faces, despite the fixity of their expressions apart from the mouths. This is due to both their clever design and the virtuosic skill of their puppeteers.
The universally strong ensemble, rendered anonymous by black body suits and gas masks designed by Warnock, works as a cohesive unit to bring the world to life. Both Waage and Warnock, members of the ensemble in addition to their production work, studied movement at the Ecole Jacques LeCoq, and that famously rigorous training is apparent in performance. Joining them on stage are the equally-impressive Melissa Creighton, Andrew Manjuck, and Peter Russo. The voices, provided by the puppeteers, are strong across the board, but the show is very much stolen by Russo's heart-meltingly charming performance as Baby Universe.
The world they inhabit is made seamless by the spaced-out soundscape of Brett Jarvis, the haunting compositions of Lars Petter Hagen, the gracefully reconfigurable set of Joy Wang, and the beautiful video projections of Naho Taruishi. The designs gave the impression of having evolved together from the start, allowing them to be mutually supportive in a way that is generally unattainable with a typical tech week-focused production schedule. Their world is immersive, elegant, and deliberate. The show is filled with details and choices that stand out as being surprisingly effective for how simple their mechanisms are. In one instance, a fleet of spaceships represented by a few lights with a precisely timed movement leads to an effect right out of Battlestar Galactica. Particularly effective throughout the show is the deft navigation between radically different scales. Puppets will pass behind a wall to instantly become a flashlight-projected silhouette; characters will ride in a suddenly transparent scrim elevator that is simultaneously shown across the stage on a model of the whole building. It is appropriate that a show about the growth of universes handles the manipulation of space so effectively, and it is crucial to the success of the solar-system-spanning story.
Perhaps most important to the success of the show, though, is something harder to rationalize. Baby Universe is immensely fun. From lights up to the final blackout I was filled with a distinctly youthful giddiness, an unceasing stupid grin plastered across my face. This was a type of unencumbered spectatorship I rarely have access to anymore. They pull this off by being so unflaggingly earnest. In a culture flooded at times with nihilistic disdain for the genuine, it's rare that you have the chance to encounter something called Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey that doesn't have the slightest whiff of irony anywhere about it. This is story-telling at its most elemental: a mother's love, a jealous tyrant, a heroic sacrifice. The charged pause between the show's end and the applause spoke to just how affecting this sort of mythic narrative can be when presented so purely. It stirs something deep.