BE­WARE THE JABBERWOCK

OLD TROUT PUP­PET WORK­SHOP'S BACK

The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - Jab­ber­wocky runs from Tues­day (Fe­bru­ary 6) to Fe­bru­ary 17 at the York Theatre. BY JANET SMITH

“Be­ware the Jabberwock, my son!/the jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

So says the non­sen­si­cal poem “Jab­ber­wocky”, about a mon­ster and a mon­ster-slayer, in Lewis Car­roll’s Through the Look­ing-glass, and What Alice Found There.

And in these words, the Old Trout Pup­pet Work­shop has found the in­spi­ra­tion for its lat­est twisted the­atri­cal crea­ture fea­ture—com­plete with the es­sen­tial “ex­is­ten­tial ter­ror”, as Trout co­founder Judd Palmer puts it.

“As a poem, it’s a non­sense piece, and we think of non­sense as a kind of ni­hilism with a sense of hu­mour—which kind of suits the Trout aes­thetic,” he tells the Straight over the phone from icy­cold Cal­gary, where the troupe is based and is in the midst of stag­ing a fan­tas­ti­cal new ren­di­tion of Twelfth Night. “It suits our child­ish whimsy but also has a dark heart.

“The poem is about a mon­ster but the mon­ster is un­de­fined,” he adds. “And what’s a ‘Ban­der­snatch’ or a ‘Jub­jub bird’? So that al­lows us to make it about mon­stros­ity.”

The sub­ject mat­ter had just enough silli­ness and dark­ness to ap­peal to the Trouts, whose last stint here in­volved the gi­ant bog deer and whirly­gig birds of Van­cou­ver Opera’s spell­bind­ing Hansel and Gre­tel in 2016. And it al­lowed the troupe to make their wildly imag­ined work speak to con­tem­po­rary fears and the “mon­sters” we face to­day.

But creat­ing this adult pup­pet show also al­lowed the troupe to dive down the rab­bit hole of low-tech stage arts used in Car­roll’s own Vic­to­rian times.

“Dig­ging around the dusty an­nals of theatre prac­tices we found out about toy theatre,” en­thuses Palmer. “Back then, ev­ery­body would have had a card­board prosce­nium in their liv­ing room or par­lour, and you’d go to a store and buy a script with pa­per cutouts.” Af­ter care­fully cut­ting out each of the twodi­men­sional char­ac­ters, you’d put on a pup­pet show for your friends or fam­ily. “There was a line be­tween pup­pet and il­lus­tra­tion there that we loved,” says Palmer.

At the same time, the Trout crew started to ex­plore the gi­ant old scroll panora­mas used to change back­grounds on-stage in the 19th cen­tury. Ac­cord­ing to Palmer, his creative team looked to one at the New Bedford Whal­ing Mu­seum that is a 300-foot­long can­vas with scenes painted on it. In Jab­ber­wocky, toy-theatre pup­pets pop up against that hu­man-cranked scrolling back­ground. There are also mo­ments of Vic­to­rian style shad­owg­ra­phy pro­jected into smoke, taxi­dermy mar­i­onettes, and an ex­tended fam­ily of white rab­bits—some­times ap­pear­ing as hu­mans with strange, exquisitely carved hare heads. (The young boy rab­bit is the one who must wield the “vor­pal sword” against the Jabberwock.) The Trouts—once again—have come up with a vividly ren­dered, sin­gu­lar look for this pro­duc­tion.

“It’s this la­bo­ri­ous method of chang­ing scenes with pup­pets, and the com­bined ef­fect is like an an­i­mated film,” says Palmer. “But it takes more work and that point­less­ness is right where the Old Trout sits!”

Palmer says that Twelfth Night, which he’s work­ing on to­day, in­hab­its an en­tirely dif­fer­ent world based on baroque “won­der theatre”, which would use ropes and pul­leys to change the scenery right in front of its be­wigged au­di­ences’ eyes. The Trouts start every pro­duc­tion from scratch, us­ing re­search to de­velop a dif­fer­ent look for each show. “We al­ways wanted to have a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. It’s a con­tin­u­ous ex­plo­ration for us, where we change the tech­nique, change the scale,” he says and then adds with a small laugh: “The idea is that even­tu­ally we’ll un­der­stand our art form.…it’s all part of the bur­den we put on our­selves, for some masochis­tic rea­son!”

Jab­ber­wocky, funded in part by the Nuits de Fourvière Fes­ti­val in Lyon, France, and launched as an in­ter­na­tional co­pro­duc­tion with Republique Theatre from Copen­hagen, took on an epic scale as the troupe started craft­ing the pup­pets in its Cal­gary work­shop. And de­spite its an­tique el­e­ments, it turned into one of the most daunt­ing lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges the crew has ever faced.

“It was the worst night­mare ever to fig­ure out how all this flowed and where you put the god­damn things back­stage so they don’t fall over,” ad­mits Palmer, who says he lost count of the nearly 100 char­ac­ters that Jab­ber­wocky con­tains. “The beauty of the toy-theatre aes­thetic is that we could have a mil­lion char­ac­ters be­cause they’re draw­ings. It’s about vis­ual den­sity.”

As usual, the pup­peteers are fully vis­i­ble in this pro­duc­tion. The key to the Old Trout ap­proach, Palmer says, is that the au­di­ence is as much a par­tic­i­pant in imag­in­ing the work as the pup­pet­mas­ters who bring the show to life.

In a world where dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy can con­jure just about any­thing on a screen, the Old Trout’s sim­ple, hand­made magic still works a spell. “A CGI Tyran­nosaurus rex comes out on­screen and no imag­i­na­tion is re­quired, in a way,” Palmer ob­serves. “That’s what makes this beau­ti­ful and frag­ile and maybe des­tined to be dis­tin­guished: it’s a last lit­tle stand for some­thing an­cient and pe­cu­liar and sweet and dan­ger­ous.”

And some­how that re­flects Alice’s own experience of the “Jab­ber­wocky” poem. As she puts it: “Some­how it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t ex­actly know what they are!”

Jab­ber­wocky mixes carved hare masks with 2-D toy-theatre pup­pets, scrolling painted back­grounds, and more (Ja­son Stang photo); be­low left, Judd Palmer.

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