Absurdly capital contradictions

John Bailey: Terrapin Puppet Theatre & MTC, Egg

EGG, Terrapin Puppet Theatre & MTC

EGG, Terrapin Puppet Theatre & MTC

It’s become commonplace to preface any review of mainstage children’s theatre by noting how in recent years the quality of such work has come to rival its grown-up counterparts, but in most cases it’s not necessarily the place you turn for experiment or formal inventiveness. There are exceptions—Melbourne’s Polyglot, for instance, now produces conceptual playspaces rather than theatre—but the kinds of programming you’ll find in a state theatre company’s education season still tends towards conventional narratives done pretty straight. It’s a bit of a shock then to find children’s theatre drawing on Samuel Beckett for inspiration.

Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s Egg, co-produced with MTC, makes no secret of its debt to Beckett, centring on a pair of tramps inhabiting a post-human landscape with no knowledge of how they got there. The nearly-dead planet is named Meridia, the same name humans have given to a series of planets they have occupied and bled dry, one by one, learning nothing from each collapsed conquest.

In a slightly more Huxley-ish mode, the populace has become dependent on “forget-me-yes,” an aerosol spray that erases memories. The frequent application of the drug by our two wandering tinkers threatens to keep them in a permanent state of presentness.

Playwright Angela Betzien’s commitment to the Godotian implications of her setup isn’t complete, however. Egg’s absurdism is mostly mined for humour—and in this regard has a position in a long history of children’s entertainment that deploys absurdism—while allegorical and fable-like elements eventually reveal themselves in opposition to existential doubt or dread.

EGG, Terrapin Puppet Theatre & MTC

EGG, Terrapin Puppet Theatre & MTC

The tinkers adopt Ovo, a strange infant they find in the wasteland, seemingly part-bird, part-insect, and as it grows they learn it is a mythical creature who emerges above ground only when the planet is in danger of imminent collapse. The themes of anthropocentric climate destruction aren’t worn lightly, but the comedy of the work is such that proceedings don’t get too heavy-handed either.

There’s a more ambiguous and ultimately interesting handling of economic systems: our would-be heroes are rugged capitalists whose livelihood is based on the theory that anything they can get their hands on can eventually be sold for a profit, and even the adoption of their feathered charge is initially seen as a way to get rich. After auctioning the creature off to the evil plutocrats behind the mining company annihilating Meridia, they’re hired as its nanny and soon find themselves protecting the being they’ve just delivered thence. This establishes a curious dynamic between the folksy, small-c capitalism of the tinkers and the corporate big-C Capitalism of their 1% bosses, and this dynamic is never resolved into something comfortable.

Egg’s mise-en-scène sometimes tends towards the static, though this is partly due to the entire work being carried by a tiny cast, and the minimalist design seems an odd choice for a work aimed at eight to 12-year-olds. All live roles are played by Genevieve Morris and Jim Russell and it’s hard to think of a sharper pairing on a Melbourne stage lately. Puppeteer Michelle Robin Anderson brings Ovo to life and the thing is so adorable that it requires actors of Morris and Russell’s level to prevent it from upstaging them at all times.

MTC and Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Egg, writer Angela Betzien, director Leticia Cáceres, puppetry director Sam Routledge, performers Genevieve Morris, Jim Russell, Michelle Robin Anderson, lighting Andy Turner, set, costume design Owen Phillips, choreography Andrew Hallsworth, composition, sound THE SWEATS; Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, 29 June-19 July

For more on performance with a difference for children read Bernadette Ashley’s review, “Liberating lo-fi for the digital generation,” of Dancenorth’s Rainbow Vomit.

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 July 2016