A wheelchair-bound robot bearing a striking resemblance to Stephen Hawking greets you in the lobby of the Baruch Performing Arts Center. “Grab a program,” he intones, flashing a surreal and somewhat creepy smile. This unusual pre-show device turns out to be the perfect way to set the mood for Wakka Wakka’s off-beat, and utterly charming sci-fi tale, Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey.
The work is set in the far future, as our solar system’s sun is about to die out. The inhabitants of Earth are desperately searching for a way to escape this cataclysm, and have instituted the “Baby Universe program,” in which thousands of women are attempting to nurture lab-created baby universes to maturity, in the hope that one will be able to produce a world that could sustain the dying planet’s population.
Written and directed by Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock, this fantastical story is brought to life through Waage’s ingenious puppet creations. He gives an anthropomorphic dimension to the baby universe — who looks and acts like a human child, except he’s pitch black and covered with stars — as well as to the characters of the Sun, Moon, and various planets.
The Sun believes that everyone in his solar system should die along with him, and so he has been kidnapping and destroying the baby universes that are created. He’s particularly concerned about Baby Universe 7001, which he views as a real threat. Not only is he developing perfectly, but he and his foster mother have formed a strong emotional bond that just might transform him into humanity’s savior.
A lot of the script’s humor comes from the way Baby Universe 7001 relates to his mother and the world around him — including throwing a temper tantrum that plays havoc with the gravity in his mother’s apartment. However, the one slight misstep within the production is the inclusion of segments from “Apocalypse Radio” that feature a cast member interviewing inhabitants of the dying world, as the upbeat interviewer is neither funny nor satirical enough to make the jokes land.
The puppets are marvelously expressive, particularly that of the mother who practically radiates devotion, and who is voiced tenderly by Warnock. Waage himself voices the Moon, who possesses a hangdog expression that signals that he’s doing what he’s told out of loyalty to the Sun, but has his own doubts about his master’s ultimate plan. Peter Russo’s voice for Baby Universe 7001 is hilariously adorable, and the ensemble is rounded out by Andrew Manjuck and Melissa Creighton.