Blockbuster high season is the perfect time for Studio Theatre to hatch Baby Universe, a whimsical sci-fi puppet show that packs more arresting imagery, haunting allegory, and tickling wit into its cosmos-spanning 60 minutes than most $200 million multiplex offerings manage in two and a half hours. It’s provocative, it’s moving, it’s funny. And there’s no surcharge for the naturally occurring 3D.
A touring co-production of the New York-based Wakka Wakka Productions and Nordland Visual Theatre, Baby Universe takes us to the bleak final days of an Earth-like planet on the verge of being swallowed by its angry sun. The inhabitants of this flash-fired husk of a world cower underground or in shielded buildings. Toxic airwaves carry forced-mirth bulletins from “Apocalypse Radio,” which tries to buoy listeners’ spirits with recordings of birdsong or thunderstorms, things that don’t exist anymore.
Like the other celestial bodies depicted here, the sun has an actual, well, body—a decrepit, long-limbed vessel that leans on a cane and has bulbous yellow eyes.
We never quite learn why he has it in for these poor creatures—it’s the circle of life, perhaps — but this malevolent being is perhaps the most remarkable of the production’s characters, a nine-foot scarecrow with an expressive, softball-sized head. The other puppets are more Hensonian, with soft, upholstered features. Their black-clad puppeteers wear what look like gas masks, adding to the sense of foreboding.
Humankind’s (or whateverkind’s) slender hopes reside with the Baby Universe Program, an attempt to breed a new solar system with planets capable of sustaining life. In the show’s charmingly daft conceit, universes don’t merely need nature to develop; they require nurture, too. We follow a harried mom’s attempt to rear to maturity Baby Universe No. 7,001—a humanoid, star-dotted, precicious black being with googly eyes. Her efforts to make him keep his “containment hat” on, or to answer his questions about sex (still a delicate topic, though the fun method of babymaking no longer happens in this bummed-out world) are the source of many laughs. There’s also a hilarious autopsy of a universe that didn’t pan out.
And the wonder? That comes from the way these inventive artists manage to conjure dreamlike imagery on a shoestring. This is the second show Studio has given us in two years at least in part about a desperate effort to save humankind from solar immolation: Like last year’s superb Astro Boy and the God of Comics, Baby Universe is a low-tech, high-imagination enterprise. Through the simple use of scale, its performers create cinematic effects on a stage: A model of the building where 7,001’s mom lives stands next to a close-up set piece of her window. 7,001’s rapid growth is depicted by the changing relative size of the puppets with whom he interacts. It sounds prosaic, but the effect as the narrative unfolds is extraordinary.
The puppeteers’ precise, warm performances invest these bags of felt and wire with distinct personalities—I loved a recurring joke about a hint of attraction between a ranking scientist and his subordinate. The puppets’ sense of life comes in large part from their operators’ generous vocal work. (The majority of the sound effects seem to be performed vocally, too, although some room-rattling effects are prerecorded.)
As in many summer spectacles, a happy ending here still means lots of death. “I believe that only some can be chosen and others must be sacrificed” is one of the Spartan mantras recited by universal babymamas. That a show this waggish can elicit such a sense of loss is a special effect, indeed.