Written by Catherine Fargher, from a concept by Jessica Wilson and Catherine Fargher. Directed by Jessica Wilson. A Jessica Wilson production presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch on Tuesday, October 26. Continues until November 6
The poetry in this production is mostly visual. Dr. Egg and the Man with No Ear, which premiered in Australia then was reimagined for a Chicago run, contains some of the most striking theatrical imagery you’ll see this season, but after the show, when I asked my 12-year-old companion what she thought, she said, “An ending would have helped.” Exactly. Beyond its physical beauty, Dr. Egg feels like an excellent, though underdeveloped, premise.
At the beginning of the show, we meet the spooky, silver-clad narrator. As played by the excellent Tania Bosak—with her hair slicked back, and her mournful eyes—the narrator feels like she’s just stepped out of a drawing by Edward Gorey. Beginning with “Once upon a time”, she tells us the story of a man who was bicycling his pregnant wife to the hospital when they were attacked by a dog. The wife died in the subsequent crash and the dog bit the man’s ear off. Fast-forward 11 years and the man is still depressed—his glasses just don’t fit right—and his fearless 11-year-old daughter is determined to make him happy. Enter Dr. Egg, a scientist who thinks that he can grow a new ear for the man if the daughter agrees to give him a cell from which to harvest DNA. As Dr. Frankenstein could have warned them, things don’t go well.
This situation will affect anyone who has had a troubled parent, the script’s examination of the ethics of genetic manipulation is appropriately disturbing, and the evening’s dark humour saves it from the trap of self-importance.
Under Jessica Wilson’s direction, the combination of Jonathon Oxlade’s design, Jamie Clennett’s projected animation, and Graeme Davis’s puppets is stellar. In one particularly beautiful image, we meet the 11-year-old for the first time. We’re watching the rippling surface of water, which is projected on a scrim, when a puppet girl swims into view. To the sounds of Lara Golan’s lyrical original music, the puppet girl paddles, dives, and resurfaces, leaving bubbles in her wake. It’s as lovely as a poem by e.e. cummings. And there are other images of this calibre: the puppet dad cycles through a projected city; out of the water, a fishy puppet creature slaps its tail, desperate for life.
Some will no doubt accept Dr. Egg as a visual meditation. Others, like me, will want narrative satisfaction as well. Dr. Egg is never strong on plot, so the imagery is often unsupported by dramatic tension, and having set up a dilemma for the father and daughter, playwright Catherine Fargher simply abandons her characters and her audience. Fargher deliberately frames Dr. Egg as a fairy tale, but in any fairy tale worth its salt, actions have unequivocal consequences.