Theater review: ‘Baby Universe’ at the Studio Theatre


The solar system is in peril in “Baby Universe,” at Studio Theatre. (Igor Dmitry)

“Baby Universe” is adorable. And a nightmare.

We’ve come to that point, it seems, when tales of the end of human history are no longer the exclusive domain of wild-eyed prognosticators and doomsday fetishists. Now, environmental scientists are engaged in the forecasts, too, a turn of events the puppeteers of New York-based Wakka Wakka Productions seize on wondrously, in their uniquely winsome approach to the last days of Earth, and beyond.

A gathering unease over the effects of global warming, coupled with the terror that comes in childhood when the first intimations take hold that existence has an expiration date, inform the sweet and harrowing episodes of “Baby Universe.” Performed by five expert puppeteers — who include its co-directors, puppet designer Kirjan Waage and costume/mask designer Gwendolyn Warnock — the hour-long production at Studio Theatre provides a dazzling display of showmanship. It also covers a subject better suited to ages equipped to mull its consequences.

Maybe because the piece reawakened in me worries that recall the scene in “Annie Hall” in which young Alvy is obsessed with the idea that the universe is expanding, I’m erring on the side of caution where children are concerned. Any of the gloominess, though, is leavened by the supple layers of sci-fi inventiveness applied to the story of humankind’s efforts to avoid annihilation in some far-off millennium, when the sun is in its death throes.

It all unfolds wittily, even at times touchingly, in the ensemble of puppets, tiny and towering, manipulated by actors wearing what look like dark haz-mat suits. The remnants of the human race, “Baby Universe” reports, live below the parched surface to escape the heat of the expanding sun, as teams of scientists desperately seek to manufacture a new universe that will replace the old one.

Embedded in this story is a judgment that human beings never learn. They’ll do anything to subjugate Nature, no matter the price. Mercilessly, the scientists create a phalanx of test-tube “baby universes” — each one as sentient as a human baby — in hopes one will evolve into a cosmos they can colonize and in the process maim. One after another the babies, nurtured by human mothers, die, until the advent of No. 7001, a cute infant-puppet pocked with nascent stars and as beguilingly willful and curious as any other young innocent.

You’ll find yourself developing tender feelings for this creature and his mother, the way you probably did for C-3PO. There’s a “Star Wars” sort of completeness, on a smaller scale, to the fantasy “Baby Universe” constructs, with, for example, the planets of the solar system portrayed as a gang of loafing, self-serving barflies and the Moon a craven henchman of the Sun. While we’re on the subject, our life-sustaining No. 1 star is rendered as an ill-tempered giant puppet with glowing eyes who rages, rages at the dying of the light.

“My shoes no longer fit. It will be over soon,” the Sun laments. As with all the voices and voiced sound effects, the Sun’s vocalizations are splendid.

Any mistaking this for allegory is erased in the baldly direct cautionary note the production strikes. From time to time, the piece segues to an unctuous reporter on Apocalypse Radio, who sticks a mike in the faces of the few surviving Earthlings as they cough out their final words. Intermittently, the station reaches into its “memory archives” and broadcasts sounds of events now extinct, like the crash of an ocean wave, or a thunderstorm.

Yes, the hand gets a tad heavy. But the mournful evocations are poetic, rather than depressing, and because it infuses its creative impulses with so much joy, its characters with so much personality, “Baby Universe” is anything but a message-laden downer. We can only hope that in the distant future, a thriving planet still supports this advanced degree of imaginative life.

marksp@washpost.com

Baby Universe:
A Puppet Odyssey

produced by Wakka Wakka and Nordland Visual Theatre. Directed by Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock. Puppets, Waage; costumes and masks, Warnock; music, Lars Petter Hagen; sets, Wakka Wakka and Joy Wang; lighting, Alex Goldberg; sound, Brett Jarvis; video, Naho Taruishi. With Andrew Manjuck, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Peter Russo. About one hour. Through July 14 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.

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