Combine two parts Muppet with one part Mummenschanz. Stir in spoonfuls of the spooky spectacles of the New York City Halloween parade and international Carnival celebrations. Blend with modern-day environmental portents and sprinkle liberally with sci-fi films from the 1950s. Serve immediately to audiences eager for visually and emotionally arresting theater. Written and directed by Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock of the ingenious Wakka Wakka Productions, Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey is a wild and wacky eco-fable brought to life with over 30 hand-and-rod puppets ranging from nine inches to nine feet. It is a wonder to behold.
Upon entering the lobby, audience members are greeted by a mini Stephen W. Hawking robot, complete with miniaturized wheelchair and computer-generated voice. This interactive puppet version of the theoretical physicist and cosmologist literally sets the stage for the story to come: a futuristic tale where the Sun is dying, the Earth is on the verge of destruction, and the number of people left has dwindled down to numbers that foretell the end of humankind.
In this world, scientists have been creating so-called “baby universes” in hopes of generating a new planetary system where the surviving population can relocate. Unfortunately, most of these infant cosmos have not survived. The birth of baby universe Number 7,001 is the starting point of this one-hour sci-fi extravaganza.
Number 7,001 grows from a tiny black salamander-esque critter into a boy-like creature increasingly covered in stars. He is nurtured by a loving mother figure crowned with what looks like The Flying Nun’s cowl. 7,001’s formative years, both humorous and touching, make up the first half of the show.
But as Number 7,001 continues to mature against all odds, things turn ugly. He is kidnapped by the stork-like Moon, who resembles a cartoon villain with his beady red eyes and pencil-thin mustache. The Moon, as flunky to the dying Sun (a dazzling and enormous puppet with a shrunken head and headlight eyes), has been instructed to eliminate any threat to the king-like center of the failing universe. The other crusty and cranky planets, including fading diva Earth, burned-out Mercury, and flimflam Mars, are all in cahoots with the Sun as well.
As they demonstrated in the 2008 Drama Desk nominated production of FABRIK: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, Wakka Wakka pushes the boundaries of the imagination and creates works that are “bold, unique, and unpredictable” (as quoted from their mission statement).
Baby Universe continues this legacy with a stunning assortment of puppets by Mr. Waage and gorgeous costume and mask design by Ms. Warnock. The space-age score by Lars Petter Hagen and eerie lighting by Kate Leahy only enhance the dystopian atmosphere of the production, as does the ingenious script that touches on questions of religion, science, morality, and ecology.
High praise is offered to all five puppeteers (Melissa Creighton, Andrew Manjuck, and Peter Russo along with Waage and Warnock). Prowling the darkened stage dressed in Army-issue coveralls with their faces obscured by end-of-the-world gas masks, the talented quintet creates real emotions and expressions from the inanimate puppets, creating life where none actually exists. Their vocal work, including asides as DJs and interviewees at the acidly-titled Apocalypse Radio, is also superb.
Because of its dark subject matter and sometimes scary imagery, Baby Universe is not recommended for young children. But tweens, teens, and adult theatergoers would be hard-pressed to find a more inventive, engrossing, or striking production currently showing in New York. Baby Universe is a world in and of itself.