Baby Universe (A Puppet Odyssey)
Baby Universe, a one-hour, adult-themed puppet show, begins with a DJ from Apocalypse Radio announcing to the audience that he is ”broadcasting live from the darkest corner of the bunkers.” His tone conveys urgency as he reports that the program will include an interview with one of the last people alive. The situation, we’re told, is grim: “These are the last days. Nothing can keep death from us. The plants are scorched, the animals blistered…The seas? What seas…? Soon everything will perish.”
Using more than thirty puppets ranging in size from nine inches to nine feet, Baby Universe explores the imminent environmental catastrophe facing the earth’s inhabitants and questions whether anything can be done to stop this seemingly inevitable destruction. Special effects are in large supply—spectators are repeatedly stunned by flashing lights, the appearance of fire and smoke, and the sounds of crashing waves—as five onstage puppeteers, clad in gray spacesuits, their faces completely covered by enormous gas masks, manipulate their charges. It’s highly inventive and totally captivating.
Among the subjects explored is the notion of “baby universes,” human-generated black holes that scientists in Japan and Switzerland currently believe can lead to the development of alternative life forms. Baby Universe introduces the concept of scientifically generated “babies,” manufactured beings whose sole function is to attempt to create a new solar system. If they are successful, the play tells us, animal, plant, and human life will continue on another planet, far from our devastated earth.
Time, of course, is of the essence, and whether this can succeed or not depends on baby number 7001, a hand puppet, (Peter Russo provides the pitch-perfect voice, part whiny child, part messiah) who has been reared by an always-doting surrogate mother (voiced by Gwendolyn Warnock). Can this savior come through and protect the biosphere’s few remaining survivors? Or is it already too late?
As the performance progresses, it raises a plethora of controversial subjects, not the least of which is whether scientists are usurping the role of God. The matter is left for the audience to ponder, and the show smartly avoids heavy-handed moralizing on the matter. Still, in raising the issue it asks viewers to not only address the trashing of diverse ecosystems, but to think about what our behavior will mean for evolutionary development. It’s big stuff.
That said, Baby Universe is anything but ponderous. While heavy philosophical issues are touched upon, and serious themes regarding religion, science, and ecology are presented, the play is highly entertaining and often funny. There is ample shtick—including an almost-Vaudevillian moment in which 7001 discovers that he lacks a penis—as well as several musical digressions. Indeed, music by Norwegian composer Lars Petter Hagen adds tension and zest to the production. Similarly, the simple set designed by Naho Tatuishi, Joy Wang, Brett Jarvis, and Kate Leahy—movable scrims onto which images are continually projected—give the show an eerie feel.
Strange, moving, and intriguing, Baby Universe is a timely look at looming environmental catastrophe. There’s melancholy, tempered by hope, throughout. “Life is so fragile,” one of the puppets declares near the end of the production. “It’s the most beautiful thing I know.”