THEATRE REVIEW: Ignorance is bliss

“Happiness gives our existence meaning,” the audience is informed at the top of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s new play Ignorance. However, the narrator adds, the average person experiences only 14 minutes of true happiness in his or her lifetime. As we listen to this, an innocent child is being strangled to death by one of the many helium-filled happyface balloons which populate the set.

Looks like the macabre puppeteers are at it again. The Calgary company known for Famous Puppet Death Scenes has created an edgy story about the evolution of happiness. So heady is the concept, Old Trout left the writing to the whims of whomever floated by their website to contribute to the script. The results are not by any means perfect, but they’re a lot better than you’d think.

Running at Theatre Network through April 8, the play is set in prehistoric times, at the dawn of Man. We watch the day to day struggle of a man and woman cave puppets. The narrator explains the evolution of happiness and suggests that bliss and contentment work against the evolutionary process: As long as we are satisfied and content, we are never trying to improve our lot in life. Apparently, the evolution of happiness is tied to humans developing a pre-frontal lobe. It is here where we house our imagination. Meanwhile, our cave couple struggles to eat and not be eaten, and – every once and a while – is bullied by an alpha male cave puppet, who drags the female away from our ineffectual hero to perform some offstage cave puppet rape.

Sesame Street this is not.

Interspersed with the action are flash forwards to puppet sketches about our modern society and our day to day struggles. In true Old Trout fashion, some of the flash forwards meander way off topic. Even though they are laugh inducing, there is something off-putting when they don’t stay true to the theme. This must be one of the pitfalls of letting Joe Hashpipe log into your website and “contribute” to the play.

Ignorance carries with it an expressionistic design (a note in the program lets us know that the cave puppets were made to look like they were cobbled together by cave people). Imagine if Jim Henson had the artistic styling of Edvard Munch and the gonzo comic chops of Sam Kinison. Now imagine him writing an episode of the Flintstones.

While this is an effective black comedy, one might have trouble with the languid pacing. Hey Guys: Just because Stan Laurel and Sergio Leone could pull it off doesn’t mean you can. And at one point, the narration suggests that the key to happiness is acceptance – “things are what they are” – and offers this very play as a shining example. A self-justifying ruse if ever there was one. In the world of philosophy, this is akin to Mama Spinoza plopping a plate liver and onions in front of you and telling you “You’ll eat it and you’ll like it!”

To get away from being Statler & Waldolf for a second, Ignorance is a play more tuned to Bert’s sensibilities than Ernie’s (although I’m positive Ernie would giggle). While Old Trout will compromise story and theme for the sake of a laugh, which rarely comes cheaply, their desire to take puppets beyond the proscenium is revolutionary. The puppeteers also seem to have little care for masking their presence, a distraction from optimum enjoyment, though their skill articulates to the very back row of the theatre. They show an obvious love and dedication for the craft to make us forget that puppetry takes a lot of discipline. And even though they are sick and twisted, they give us pause and hope for the human race. The bottom line is, Ignorance gives us a lot more happiness than the 14 minutes that was promised us at the beginning.