Left - Laura Purcell. Cover - Leeroy Hart, Laura Purcell and Sara Cooper. Photos - Peter Mathew
Founded in 1981 as a not-for-profit company, Terrapin is a stalwart of the Tasmanian theatre scene. This latest show, Explosion Therapy, may find its core audience amongst children (from ages 7 and up is recommended) but there are evening shows as well, rightly encouraging the interest of a wider audience.
Artistic director Frank Newman, who makes his debut with Terrapin with this show, says he was motivated by an interest in the role of new technologies in theatre. Here this means dealing with how filmic representations of reality can be blended with theatrical ones. Newman also wants Explosion Therapy to challenge ‘the notion of what puppetry is’, something it achieves very effectively.
Devised in collaboration with the performers, Explosion Therapy combines clowning with video animation. It centres around three characters, played by Sara Cooper, Leeroy Hart and Laura Purcell. When a large video screen appears inexplicably in front of them, the hapless trio discovers a whole new world. They are able to actually walk into the screen (a fairly seamless illusion involving precision timing between live performances and pre-recorded ones), entering a new dimension where anything can happen - like walking on the ceiling or being suddenly separated from body parts.
There are plenty of silent movie style shenanigans as the three chase each other back and forth, going through doors and coming out in unexpected places. The clowns even encounter a funny little man who apparently lives inside the screen (at one point they catch him on the loo - the odd toilet joke fits well with the show’s generally irreverent tone). Suffice it to say things get progressively weirder and weirder, and sometimes a little scary - but somehow the clowns’ encounter with the screen, described by the director as a ‘fourth character’, is liberating, even cathartic. It’s also just a lot of fun, with much teasing, laughter and, yes, plenty of stuff exploding.
There’s not much storyline: Explosion Therapy is more an experience than a conventional narrative. Well, it’s therapy - clown therapy for the clowns, not by them. Sara Cooper’s clown is an uptight, overdressed woman suffering from an over-inflated sense of dignity (and a nasty case of the itches), while in contrast Laura Purcell is more childlike, sucking on a lollipop as though it’s her main source of joy in life.
Leeroy Hart, who we first see reading the newspaper and trying to pretend he's more interested in the stock market than the funnies, is sort of the leader of the gang, if only because he’s the only one who speaks. Like a cross between Norman Gunston and Rain Man, he’s a bit of an idiot savant (perhaps all clowns are?), witty one minute and painfully transparent the next. Hart’s asides sometimes add clarity or humour to proceedings, although much of his dialogue is actually just as inconsequential as his co-stars’ non-verbals (so why the decision to limit Cooper and Purcell’s means of communication?).
At times the show seems to lose momentum: not through any lack of enthusiasm or visual ingenuity (there is plenty of both) but because it doesn’t really seem to be leading anywhere. Of course neither clowning, physical comedy nor puppetry need rely on plot, with a spirit of anarchy often desirable. But this show is so boldly conceived and executed that it seems a pity that there couldn’t have been more emotional drive.
But Explosion Therapy is a consistently entertaining piece of theatre. There is humour, pathos, spectacle and some genuinely startling moments, particularly when three-dimensional props are used in conjunction with two-dimensional counterparts. Kids will be engaged by the show's human warmth but at the same time fascinated by a 'how did they do that?' curiosity. Adults will find food for thought in what is really an exuberant meditation on identity de-construction and the inner child (better than weeks of analysis!). The performances are great, while the animation and music convey a retro mood that may spark memories of old style computer games or watching Sesame Street as a child.
This kind of ‘digital puppetry’ could be expanded to serve all sorts of dramatic purposes as yet unthought of. And yet, impressive as the range of techniques on display here is, some of the most powerful moments in Explosion Therapy are also the simplest ... like the scene where Purcell’s clown finds herself split in two, herself as a puppet and her real self confronting each other, as though she’s meeting her own soul. The life-sized puppet lies inert and helpless in Purcell’s lap, until little by little she begins to animate her, making her come alive, making herself come alive. This is just old-fashioned puppetry and it’s amazing stuff.
Terrapin Puppet Theatre presents
Venue: Peacock Theatre Hobart
Dates: January 9 - 18 2008 (No performances Sunday 13 January)
Bookings: Centertainment on 6234 5998 or www.centertainment.com.au