8 Apr 2008 Live from UNIMA 2008: Review of Explosion Therapy
Explosion Therapy was one of the three tickets to shows that I got when I booked my UNIMA trip (it comes as part of the registration). I’d missed my first ticket, due to the 9-8 day working on my bunraku head. So when it was time to head down to Fremantle (a coastal suburb of Perth) to see this show, I hoped it would be a good one.
First it must be said, this show was performed in Perth’s resident puppet company’s (Spare Parts Puppet Theatre) venue. It’s just outside the train station, and is quite a beautiful space. (For Melbournians, compare it to a slightly larger version of Polyglot’s space) The foyer is magnificent, but not for its architectural values – although they are good – but because there is a large display of puppets. One wall was covered with pigeonholes, each one holding a puppet. I saw small versions of KISS, a couple of Princess Diana dolls, marionettes… There are wonderful puppets hanging from the ceiling, and large costume puppets dot the rest of the foyer. There’s even a bin full of puppets at the front door, almost like a doctor’s room.
Inside the space, it’s about 200 seats, raked, lovely and plush, with the stage being somewhat proscenium (although there’s a small proscenium it seemed like a cross between multifunctional and that). On stage, there was a large projection screen, almost the full width of the stage, and at least four metres high. To stage right, a small box on a stand, with a couple of lights and a button. The box has an electrical lead, which clearly runs up to the side of the projection screen. The only other thing on stage was the slight view of a rope hanging down from the rig stage right to the first tab (curtain for you non-theatre people).
Explosion Therapy is by Terrapin Puppet Theatre, located in Hobart, Australia. They are one of the more notable companies here, and the reputation is well earned. This particular performance is one of new media and puppetry, and is aimed at a children’s audience.
The performance begins, and we are introduced to a male character (the name of which eludes me, as it was not used often, but he was played by Leeroy Hart); a man in shirt, pants and suspenders, quite clownish in its subtle way. He tries to read his newspapers, while the ‘girls’ aren’t around – quite clearly setting himself out as a caricature of young boys, who never like to be around girls.
Next, a woman enters, in a green silk shirt and a skirt. She’s got a pink handkerchief scarf around her neck, and by her actions we learn that she likes to preen, and is quite snobbish. There’s not much dialogue in this show, but when there is, the characters speak somewhat unintelligibly. At first, I found this annoying, because I couldn’t understand what was being said, but then I realised that much of what was said wasn’t necessary to follow what was going on: with much of it accompanied by actions that were clear, sort of like mime with words. This woman, Anna (or Hannah?), played by…, tries to steal the man’s newspaper. She quite likes the man, but he doesn’t like her at all.
Finally, a young woman enters. She’s wearing a red skirt, with a tshirt/vest ensemble. Her hair was my favourite: blonde, which was pulled up from her head in a sort of plait that was completely straight, and finished in a small spurt of her hair, making her look rather futuristic. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the costumes, but they were wonderfully inventive, and so fun and playful – ideal for a kids audience. Anyway, this young girl, Cookie, is the dumb one of the group, particularly fascinated with lollipops, and is generally treated badly by Anna.
The three muck around for a bit with the newspaper, until they discover the box with the button. All of the action is comedic, with lots of farce, and all of the characters are more like clowns than people. They’re at first very scared to press it, but they manage to trick Cookie and she presses it. Suddenly the projection screen turns on, and a little dot appears on it. They try and catch it, and what ensues is a very funny exploration of what’s in the screen: the characters manage to ‘walk’ into the TV-land, by way of a combination of well-timed exits behind the screen, and well-timed prerecorded projections of them walking onto the screen area. Each character explores it in a different way, with doors appearing out of nowhere, walking through them, and finding themselves walking back on stage by accident, or through another door. The puppetry is pretty much limited to a few moments, when large confetti dots go from being virtual to real, and when Cookie gets cut in two, and her legs get used as an oven (god, that one’s really a ‘had to be there’ thing). The manipulation over all was good, but I didn’t feel like I was watching a puppet show, but a new media show with some puppets thrown in. However, the whole show is Chaplinesque in its way, and a lot of fun is had exploring the ways in which the characters play with the walking on/walking off the screen.
Lighting bothered me; it was too dim in some areas, with the actors sometimes falling out of the beam of light, and in other areas, it simply wasn’t dimensional enough. This is perhaps a personal preference, but at times I found myself looking at the lighting state and wondering why it was that way. Sticking to the learned principle that good lighting should not be noticed, I think it lacked a little something in this particular performance.
Sound design was excellent, providing a fun and bouncy soundtrack to the weird and wonderful world of dots, doors, explosions and other actions. There are plenty of sound effects to go along with everything, and this area of design was ideal for the concepts of the show.
I found myself getting bored of this show, even though it was only 50 minutes long. There is a somewhat cardinal rule in puppetry, which is that you only show a trick three times. You see, if it’s done three times, you get the joke, and its smoothed in, so you’re in on it too. But after a while, the trick gets boring. (This is a rule that is often used on TV – watch an episode of The Simpsons for instance, they often do something three times, and then move on to the next part of the story). I found myself getting bored in this after a while, and at the point at which I would feel myself thinking it, a new thing would be introduced: the characters start blowing up, or one starts farting and even pissing confetti, or one starts growing weird pink barnacles on her neck. I’m not sure whether this is as bad as it seems. There were a number of kids in the audience, who roared with laughter every time something happened. So perhaps I just needed to be younger to not get bored of the same trick.
The one problem with this kind of performance is that it is entirely reliant on the actors walking behind the screen in perfect timing with the recorded projections. And I hate to say it… but sometimes they were off. I’m not nitpicking here, yes there were a couple of moments when it was off by a nanosecond, but there were others where it was literally a few seconds – and that spoils the magic of the effect.
Luckily the actors are brilliant, and despite the small flaws in timing, they were the ones who pulled it all off. Without these actors, who had great stage presence, and clear, defined, emotional reactions to everything that they experience with the big projection screen. Sara Cooper, Leeroy Hart, and Laura Purcell have an amazing chemistry onstage, and I particularly enjoyed watching the stuffy posh Anna and her thought changes. She had this fantastic poise, and her facial expressions were a joy.
My vote: (3 UNIMA stars out of 5)
… Come back soon for tomorrow’s diary post: another meeting with a Perth thespian, a discussion on animatronics, and puppets go improv! UPDATE: Read the next day’s post here.