The age of humans represents a tiny blip in the long timeline of planet Earth. This is a fact that the theater, with its focus on human drama, mostly ignores. But not Wakka Wakka, the wildly imaginative puppet theater that has set its latest production, The Immortal Jellyfish Girl, in the year 2555 — a time after humans as we know them. This co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre is now at 59E59 and boasts the most exotic puppets currently on a New York stage.
How could they not be? Puppet designer Kirjan Waage (who has co-written and co-directed the piece with Gwendolyn Warnock, and some help from the ensemble) has gorgeously imagined beings that do not presently exist. Ecological disaster has forced humanity to evolve in two very distinct directions: Homo Technalis are technologically enhanced human-machine hybrids, while the Homo Animalis have survived by embracing their animal side.
The two groups are at war, with the former led by the terrifying Doyenne, whose only surviving human characteristics are an arm, a head, and a Slovenian accent. She is hellbent on destroying the Turtle, the mad scientist leader of the Animalis. But he has created a secret weapon in Aurelia, the titular Jellyfish girl, who carries in her the DNA of every animal. Bioluminescent, she constantly spawns new life from her fiberoptic hair in the form of tiny polyps (this is Waage at his most inventive). Aurelia's chance encounter with an orphaned Technalis boy sets in motion a dark prophecy of Armageddon.
If that sounds impossibly confusing, fear not: Warnock and Waage have created a helpful guide in The Fox, a narrator clad in a fox mask, red tuxedo jacket, and cargo shorts (clever costumes by Warnock and Waage). "Just like Virgil…I will be taking you to this hell of a puppet show," he promises in the prologue. And that he does, lubricating the rougher edges of this strange world with his gentle Scandinavian manners and profound sense of the absurd. It's Brechtian, but more fun.
Narrative magpies, Warnock and Waage borrow liberally from multiple mythologies (Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Star Wars, The Mahābhārata) to create a futuristic fable that is as suspenseful as it is sobering. The stage action is greatly enhanced by Thor Gunnar Thorvaldsson's tense original music and sound design. Lighting designers Jan Erik Skarby and Marianne Thallaug Wedset help to create a dark vision of the future, with plenty of magic lurking in the shadows.
Warnock and Waage's grand cinematic staging is made possible by the hooded figures of the ensemble (Lei-Lei Bavoil, Alexander Burnett, François Couder, Jon Levin, Dorothy James, Andy Manjuck, Peter Russo, Kyra Vandenenden, and Olivia Zerphy). Manipulating puppets big and small, as well as large chunks of the scenery, they move across the stage so seamlessly that it is impossible to identify the contributions of a single individual. Roles are also not delineated in the program. The puppets are the stars.
Don't let the puppets fool you. This is perhaps the goriest, most violent show currently playing off-Broadway. It's really not a children's show, unless you have one of those very special kids who is able to process death and their ultimate insignificance in the universe.
It's a departure from Wakka Wakka's previous show, Made in China, a wonderfully strange musical about Americans and our addiction to the cheap plastic junk that pours forth from the workshop of the world. Of course, it's not too difficult to connect the dots between the behavior depicted in that story and the catastrophic events of this one.
But whether you believe climate change is manmade and we can reverse it, or that we are powerless to resist such awesome atmospheric forces — Isn't this just a repackaged version of the fate versus freewill debate that has preoccupied drama from the beginning? — The Immortal Jellyfish Girl is here to remind us that nothing is forever, and none of us will likely be around to witness what comes next.