Jabberwocky a union made in puppet heaven

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The Jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

So warned Lewis Carroll back in 1871 in his famous nonsense poem in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. But, by all means, don’t take the author literally when it comes to the latest puppet show from Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop. You would certainly miss a wonderfully entertaining evening of theatre.

Part of the Theatre Network main season, the world premiere of Jabberwocky plays in the Roxy on Gateway through Nov. 26.

This is not Punch and Judy. It is not particularly designed for your children – though the older ones may enjoy it. The titles of some of the Trout’s previous shows might give a clue to their content: The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, Famous Puppet Death Scenes and The Unlikely Birth of Estvan. The Trouts have appeared in music videos (Feist’s Juno award-winning Honey Honey) and have been featured in an opera.

The company has long since moved beyond simple string marionettes to giving propulsive life to a circus of heretofore inanimate objects. The company’s shows often feature allegory and surrealism leavened with splashes of colour and broad comic strokes. The sound effects and music (in this case mostly Eastern European – with lots of tsymbaly), are precisely chosen to advance the story, which is told in gibberish, grunts, growls, croaks and yawps by the actors.

Many of the techniques were old when Punch was just a stick of wood – but the creativity is awesome and the detail impressive: a painted Polaroid takes a shot and spits out a picture, an iron pressing a shirt hisses and generates clouds of steam. In short, the Old Trouts create and celebrate art – through mask, manipulation and animation of all kinds of objects (yes, even puppets) and the imagination of willing audiences. Observes one of the founders, “In a weird kind of a way, it is possible to connect even more with a puppet than with an actor on stage, because with an actor they are always pretending to be someone else, but a puppet is exactly who it is. You really feel all those emotions along with it.”

The story of how the Old Trouts came to be would make a show in itself. Back in the blustery Winter of 1999, a group of bearded old buddies, reacting to the  unease about the effects of Y2K, moved to a farm south of Calgary. There they lived the simple agrarian life and invented a new form of puppetry. They don’t collect eggs and slop the hogs anymore, but every two years or so they venture forth with a new presentation – shows that have played all over North America and Europe including France, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The Trouts are Nicolas Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanova, Pityu Kenderes and Sebastian Kroon, the four representative of an army of back up personnel. On stage, the men dress in longjohns with suspenders and there’s a full length shift for Ivanova. They perform in front of a series of ingenious and effective rolling tapestries. They are both horizontal and vertical and place the performers anywhere they want to be in the cosmos. The panoramas are mounted in small prosceniums on wheels, pushed about the stage and cranked by hand.

Not that Carroll had the Old Trouts in mind when he penned Jabberwocky but it is a union made in puppet heaven. The 70-minute production begins with a light show – coloured flashlights coming together to create the universe. That’s followed by the creation of the world. Most wonderful forests pop up, sperm travels through various tubes – and Presto! New life is created and the story begins.

It’s all about rabbits.

The creatures are seven feet tall – lapin masks on human bodies that soon take on a remarkable life. The story they tell is of our young dreams (facing the Jabberwocky in battle) and how life often gets in the way of our heroic fantasies. But, in the end, we learn that love and family are what’s really important. A message that is neither cloying, overly sentimental or cliche ridden, but exultant and celebratory in the hands of this remarkable and gifted company.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!