Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop brings a visually dazzling, deep-thinking puppet show to Canadian Stage, but one still in need of some cohesion.
Puppetry is one of the oldest forms of theatre, dating as far back as 3000 BC. Happiness is a concept that’s just as old.
While humankind—in this case, the Old Trout Puppet Workshop—has mastered the former, happiness remains an unattainable prize. It’s an idea we continue to try to wrap our minds around, the carrot that keeps us all moving, working, socializing, exercising, shopping, watching, and eating.
If that seems a bit bleak, it is. But it’s the impression that lingers after the lights dim on Ignorance, the latest philosophical exploration in puppetry by the renowned Calgary troupe, on now at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Theatre. The show takes audiences back and forth through thousands of years of history, tracking how happiness has influenced humanity’s behaviour.
A caveman and cavewoman seek evolving sources of happiness as their wants develop from concrete, immediate needs (food, shelter, winning) to more complex ones (love, a better life, a legacy). Present-day sketches take on an age of soft-bodied grumps plagued by a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Spoiler alert: the culprit, according to the Old Trouts, is imagination. Although it’s the thing that allows us to believe that puppets controlled by three onstage mustachioed men in grey, baggy unitards are, in fact, cave people, woolly mammoths, or giant prehistoric monsters, it also plagues us with the ability to envision a happier world—one that doesn’t exist.
Right from the get-go, we know we’re in for a bumpy ride. A happy-faced balloon, a recurring puppet in the show, teases a small boy on roller skates only to slowly strangle him with its string. Then a pleasant, unseen narrator (voiced by one of the original founding Trouts, Judd Palmer) doles out stats on suicide and how we’ll experience most of our few moments of pure bliss here on Earth before we’re 12 years old. It’s a jarring, darkly comic intro, but it properly prepares you for what’s to come.
The Old Trout Puppet Workshop doesn’t sugarcoat its topic, sure, but Ignorance is ridiculous, absurd, weird, and sometimes extremely fun. Most of the delight comes from the puppets themselves. The cave creatures are made to look as if they’re cobbled together from stone, wood, bone, and fur. The modern characters, even the children, are roly-poly sacks with faces that embody the “grumpy old man.” All the action unfolds in front of a set that’s basically a giant pair of antlers on its side. And though there are a few pacing issues in some scenes that feature the two prehistoric lovebirds, their storyline is charming, and the biological explanation of happiness is enlightening. Though they’re mostly entertaining too, the modern scenes don’t exactly have anything revelatory to say about discontentment and mass consumerism.
There’s room for improvement, but overall the Old Trout Puppet Workshop achieves its goal. Ignorance sheds some light on the pursuit of happiness, with some excellent points to chew on after you leave the theatre. It’s a show about happiness, not a happy show.