"Jabberwocky" -- Frabjous!

Food for uffish thought in Old Trout's mimsy puppetry @ York

"Come to my arms, my beamish boy!" Photo: Old Trout

Is it just coincidence? Cultch venues are hosting two distinctive puppet shows at the same time: No Foreigners on its black-box Lab stage and, now, Jabberwocky at the York. Seeing them back-to-back is a study in contrasts.

Each presents a rather arch take on the portentous monomyth of a Hero Quest. But there the similarity ends.

In the Lab production, ninja-clad puppeteers stealthily manipulate micro-manikins which are projected, through a lot of hi-tech gimmickry, into macro-tableaux on a cyclorama screen. The characters spew an eloquent stream of English and Cantonese dialogue. And The Quest seems to be in pursuit of some elusive – and exclusive – essence of “Chineseness.”

In Jabberwocky, on the other hand, Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop uses larger-than-life wearable rabbit hoods, stick-mounted rag dolls and cut-out placards. The four players – Nicolas Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanova, Pityu Kenderes and Sebastian Kroon – mince, prance, moon, vault or slouch across the stage with these puppets, noisily emoting non-stop, but with nary an intelligible word.

The stagecraft is militantly low-tech: eight roll-away frames, each fitted with vertically mounted scrolling panoramas, plus a horizontally scrolling pano as a backdrop. All the scrolls are hand-painted and hand-cranked.

 As for the goal of The Quest, make of it what you will; it derives, after all, from a Lewis Carroll text of purest gibberish that could denote anything you care to see in it. But, in the hands of Old Trout, Jabberwocky seems to veer away from chinoiserie or Canadiana any other tribal or contextual particulars. Our Hero is stalking something more universal.

The show traces the life of a nameless (in fact wordless) Everyman – or, rather a rabbit-headed Everybunny – from the moment of conception through gestation, birth and infancy. From an Oedipal toddler brandishing a wooden dagger, he grows into a wimpy, bullied schoolchild and then a sulky adolescent.

So far it’s pretty droll, with lots of slapstick flourishes. But shadows begin to obtrude when our protagonist’s father – call him Pater Rabbit – takes up his shining “vorpal sword” to stalk the dread (but unspecified) Jabberwock beast.  Returning years later as a broken wreck, Pater is reduced to just sobbing and snoring in an armchair.

Everybunny filches the vorpal blade from his father’s sleeping hand, swapping it out for his own wooden dagger as he steals off to complete the Jabberwock hunt. The backdrop panorama scrolls through slithy toves and tulgey woods until we fetch up in a claustrophobic city.

When (fancifully portrayed) muggers relieve Everybunny of his vorpal sword, his forsaken childhood sweetheart turns up to scrape him off the pavement. They tryst and wed and hatch a little bunny of their own. But still, he’s haunted by the spectre of the Jabberwock.

So when he comes upon the discarded vorpal sword in a trash bin, he can’t resist snatching it up and retracing his steps. Scroll the painted panorama now in reverse until he winds up back home, just in time see his now-aged and palsied father twitch his last tremor. He tenderly settles Pater back into the armchair with the gleaming blade across his stilled knees.

Then, retrieving the dinky wooden dagger, he sadly galumphs past the borogroves and Tumtum tree back to the city. No going home now, though. He can just plant himself on a bench in front of his flat block as his abandoned wife and child coolly observe him through an upstairs casement. Seasons slide past on the hand-cranked panorama until it scrolls round to spring.

Only then do Mrs. Everybunny and Junior relent to join Our Hero on his bench. He offers the wooden dagger to the child, who promptly reciprocates with an Oedipal poke.

By this point the audience, which had been guffawing through most of the 70-minute, intermission-free show, had fallen quite silent and misty-eyed. Take it as a testimonial to the consummate artistry and versatility of the four onstage performers and the whole collective creative team behind them. Prolonged standing ovation.


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