at play on a digital slippery slope

judith abell engages in terrapin’s explosion therapy

Explosion Thearapy, Sara Cooper, Laura Purcell and Leeroy Hart

Explosion Thearapy, Sara Cooper, Laura Purcell and Leeroy Hart

Explosion Thearapy, Sara Cooper, Laura Purcell and Leeroy Hart

AS A KID, DID YOU EVER WANT TO CRACK THE CASE OF THAT UBIQUITOUS SCREEN IN THE CORNER OF YOUR LOUNGE ROOM AND CLIMB IN BEHIND THE GLASS? SOME OF MY FAVOURITE SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS WITH INFINITE MULTICOLOURED WORLDS WERE VERY APPEALING, BUT THE BOX REFUSED TO YIELD AND THE DREAM STAYED IN MY HEAD. THESE DAYS, COMPUTER GAMES WITH SOPHISTICATED AVATARS GIVE KIDS (AND ADULTS) A FEELING THAT THEY HAVE ENTERED INTO AN ALTERNATE WORLD COMPLETE WITH FRIENDS AND FOES, CHALLENGERS AND PREDATORS, BUT IT’S STILL NOT QUITE LIKE DIVING IN AND SUBMITTING YOUR OWN BODY TO UNKNOWN EXPERIENCES. TAKING THIS IDEA OF DIGITAL EMERSION AND RUNNING WITH IT, EXPLOSION THERAPY BY TERRAPIN PUPPET THEATRE EXPLORES THE SCREEN AS A SPACE AND AS A FELLOW CHARACTER.

Staged in the Peacock Theatre, the set up for this action-packed show is uncomplicated—three players, one large screen and a few simple props. The characters are unique, shying a little to the left of archetypal. A hapless gent in braces and baggy pants, silk tie stitched to his shirt in a permanent state of dishevelment, just wants to read his newspaper in peace, his speech a barely recognisable grumble emerging from his moustache. Foiled in his attempt at solitude, he is interrupted by a cheeky and somewhat devious lady decked out in 1940s style, her heavily made-up face framed by a blunt black bob, polka dot necktie and furry purple hat. Bouncing between these two is a madcap girl, dressed head to toe in pink and red polka dots, whose hair shoots out the top of her head in a stiff ponytail. There is always a lollypop in her pocket. Unlike our gent, the female characters have little recognisable dialogue, instead communicating in squeals and squeaks, oohs and aahs, giggles and roars.

Like a litter of puppies, the characters play with each other, tripping and teasing and fighting and bowling around the stage until they discover a large switch box with flashing red light. Gathering the courage to press the big red button, they bring life to the large screen behind them. What they soon discover is that they can enter this screen, and be transformed into pixels.The moment in the show when our hapless gent pulls up his sleeves and stretches his arm into the screen space where it becomes a slightly jumpier, digital version of itself is quite remarkable. He wriggles it around in amazement and draws it back out, all of his fingers still intact. A four year old in the audience notes, “That’s tricky.” Indeed.

So here begins a period of exploration for the curious three. Initially each braves this new space tentatively, slowly stretching themselves in, their flickery, video selves eventually standing with amazement in the middle of the screen. Then the madness begins, with any one of the group running in and out of this new arena, a little like play on a digital slippery slide, with each reinventing ways to experience the space.

Maybe there is dodgy wiring in the connections, but it seems as though the longer this world operates the more dangerous it gets. At first it’s harmless enough. Doors appear and disappear on the screen and the characters run between them, finding that there are chaotic rules of engagement. Hapless gent and madcap girl find themselves surrounded by bubbles of colour that float by, sometimes flopping out of the screen space onto the stage. Then hapless gent manages to shoot coloured circles out of his rear and the madcap girl explodes. I won’t go on, lest I give away all of the madness, but needless to say, the game ends in tears, with devious lady somewhat physically altered by the experience. It’s as if the screen reveals fault lines in personalities and relationships.

This is a cleverly choreographed show that explores a different take on puppetry, where the transformation of human players into video, via the device of the screen, casts them in the role of puppet, with the screen as manipulator. This is so successful as an idea, that the addition of traditional cloth puppets in the show seems almost superfluous and perhaps incongruent with the digital language. I longed for a little more complexity to the story. The conflict for this tale is generated by the technology, which affects the characters in strange and sometimes frightening ways, but the resolution is light-weight, leaving our hapless three in the dark, and the show somewhat incomplete. The world created by the screen is compelling, but it seems to have become the core around which the show is built, rather than a device that is crucial to a story. Nevertheless, I loved the Alice in Wonderland set up—where you never know what might happen if you jump down a rabbit hole (or into a screen in this case).

Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Explosion Therapy, director Frank Newman, performers Sara Cooper, Leeroy Hart, Laura Purcell, designer Roz Wren, animator, illustrator Mark Cornelius, Clockwork Beehive, lighting designer Daniel Zika, sound & music Charles Du Cane; Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, Jan 9-18

Explosion Therapy can be seen at the 20th UNIMA Congress and World Puppetry Festival (April 2-12), Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fremantle, April 7-9

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 38

© Judith Abell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2008