“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”
So says the nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky”, about a monster and a monster-slayer, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
And in these words, the Old Trout Puppet Workshop has found the inspiration for its latest twisted theatrical creature feature—complete with the essential “existential terror”, as Trout cofounder Judd Palmer puts it.
“As a poem, it’s a nonsense piece, and we think of nonsense as a kind of nihilism with a sense of humour—which kind of suits the Trout aesthetic,” he tells the Straight over the phone from icy-cold Calgary, where the troupe is based and is in the midst of staging a fantastical new rendition of Twelfth Night. “It suits our childish whimsy but also has a dark heart.
“The poem is about a monster but the monster is undefined,” he adds. “And what’s a ‘Bandersnatch’ or a ‘Jubjub bird’? So that allows us to make it about monstrosity.”
The subject matter had just enough silliness and darkness to appeal to the Trouts, whose last stint here involved the giant bog deer and whirlygig birds of Vancouver Opera’s spellbinding Hansel and Gretel in 2016. And it allowed the troupe to make their wildly imagined work speak to contemporary fears and the “monsters” we face today.
But creating this adult puppet show also allowed the troupe to dive down the rabbit hole of low-tech stage arts used in Carroll’s own Victorian times.
“Digging around the dusty annals of theatre practices we found out about toy theatre,” enthuses Palmer. “Back then, everybody would have had a cardboard proscenium in their living room or parlour, and you’d go to a store and buy a script with paper cutouts.”
After carefully cutting out each of the two-dimensional characters, you’d put on a puppet show for your friends or family. “There was a line between puppet and illustration there that we loved,” says Palmer.
At the same time, the Trout crew started to explore the giant old scroll panoramas used to change backgrounds on-stage in the 19th century. According to Palmer, his creative team looked to one at the New Bedford Whaling Museum that is a 300-foot-long canvas with scenes painted on it.
In Jabberwocky, toy-theatre puppets pop up against that human-cranked scrolling background. There are also moments of Victorian-style shadowgraphy projected into smoke, taxidermy marionettes, and an extended family of white rabbits—sometimes appearing as humans with strange, exquisitely carved hare heads. (The young boy rabbit is the one who must wield the “vorpal sword” against the Jabberwock.) The Trouts—once again—have come up with a vividly rendered, singular look for this production.
“It’s this laborious method of changing scenes with puppets, and the combined effect is like an animated film,” says Palmer. “But it takes more work and that pointlessness is right where the Old Trout sits!”
Palmer says that Twelfth Night, which he’s working on today, inhabits an entirely different world based on baroque “wonder theatre”, which would use ropes and pulleys to change the scenery right in front of its bewigged audiences’ eyes. The Trouts start every production from scratch, using research to develop a different look for each show. “We always wanted to have a different approach. It’s a continuous exploration for us, where we change the technique, change the scale,” he says and then adds with a small laugh: “The idea is that eventually we’ll understand our art form.…It’s all part of the burden we put on ourselves, for some masochistic reason!”
Jabberwocky, funded in part by the Nuits de Fourvière Festival in Lyon, France, and launched as an international coproduction with Republique Theatre from Copenhagen, took on an epic scale as the troupe started crafting the puppets in its Calgary workshop. And despite its antique elements, it turned into one of the most daunting logistical challenges the crew has ever faced.
“It was the worst nightmare ever to figure out how all this flowed and where you put the goddamn things backstage so they don’t fall over,” admits Palmer, who says he lost count of the nearly 100 characters that Jabberwocky contains. “The beauty of the toy-theatre aesthetic is that we could have a million characters because they’re drawings. It’s about visual density.”
As usual, the puppeteers are fully visible in this production. The key to the Old Trout approach, Palmer says, is that the audience is as much a participant in imagining the work as the puppetmasters who bring the show to life.
In a world where digital technology can conjure just about anything on a screen, the Old Trout’s simple, handmade magic still works a spell. “A CGI Tyrannosaurus rex comes out on-screen and no imagination is required, in a way,” Palmer observes. “That’s what makes this beautiful and fragile and maybe destined to be distinguished: it’s a last little stand for something ancient and peculiar and sweet and dangerous.”
And somehow that reflects Alice’s own experience of the “Jabberwocky” poem. As she puts it: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
Jabberwocky runs from Tuesday (February 6) to February 17 at the York Theatre.