Puppeteers Gwendolyn Warnock and Peter Russo in Baby Universe. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
BOTTOM LINE: The best post-apocalyptic puppet show you probably haven’t heard about and need to see.
Look at the picture above. You see that black thing with all the white dots on it? That is a baby universe. Sounds strange, I know, but it is actually quite sensical. Basic astrophysics tells us that the universe is constantly expanding. So is a baby universe, thus setting the stage for a brilliant puppet show that is probably off many people’s radar.
Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The sun is dying and human life has retreated to its last structure. In order to survive, man has learned how to recreate tiny universes that hopefully will expand enough to create a new earth which man can repopulate. But the experiments have been failing, and the baby universes have been dying off -- none have been able to fulfill what they are bred to do. In order to raise these baby universes, nun-like women take on the responsibility. A mother-child relationship is formed and the universe grows from a tiny ball into, well, something much bigger. This entire time the baby universe has a living, breathing personality that interacts with the humans and other creatures. It acts like a growing child and the magic of puppetry works well as a theatrical conceit for the story.
I know it may sound a little out there, but the show pulls through quite successfully. All the details are very well executed. Baby Universe reminded me of Jim Henson’s movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth from the 1980s. The concept may be high fantasy (or in this case science fiction) but the story is relatable and easy to get sucked into. In a lot of ways it also reminded me of The Matrix or Minority Report where science fiction premises are enjoyable and surprisingly easy to buy.
The success of the show has to be credited to excellent acting and skilled puppetry. I’ve never seen anything like it. Billed as “a puppet odyssey,” the puppets are truly the stars of the show. Each puppet is impressive, unique and memorable. The villainous Moon puppet is creepy and also makes a strong visual reveal. The direction smartly teases the audience while slowly exposing what is to come. The human puppets, on the other hand, have their own lives. There is a desperation -- they need the baby universe project to succeed. The puppets convey a range of emotions effectively.
In telling this story, there are extremely creative design choices utilized that explore all the different avenues of puppetry and visual storytelling including tricks of scale, explorations with light and effective set design (very simple, but used creatively). The use of light is well-executed. The world is bleak and dark, except for explosions, rays of light, a chase scene involving silhouettes and a momentary flood of light, all accenting the mood of the story.
My biggest concern is that this show comes and goes without much of an audience. The Baruch theater space is modern and large and Baby Universe is deserving of numerous filled seats. I’d recommend it to tweens and teenagers as well as adults (really any child who can handle some science fiction, for that matter). Fans of the Muppets and Jim Henson should certainly check it out (The Jim Henson Foundation is a sponsor, by the way).
And if you arrive a little early, you’ll have the chance to meet a robot Stephen Hawking in the lobby. My conversation with Robot Hawking was a welcomed highlight to the evening.
(Baby Universe plays at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave between at 25th street, through January 8, 2010. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm & 7pm. There will be additional performances Tuesday, December 21st and 28th at 8pm, Friday, January 7th at 2pm and 8pm, Saturday, January 8th at 11am, 8pm and 10pm, and Sunday, January 9th at 11am. There will be no performances December 24th, 25th, 26th, 31st and January 1st & 2nd. Tickets are $30 or $20 for students and seniors. Tickets are are available at theatermania.com or by calling 212.352.3101.)