The latest in a series of works by Terrapin Puppet Theatre to grapple with the notion of 'digital puppetry', The Gatekeeper is billed as a family show, primarily aimed at children over five years of age. Sadly, this is a show that's thematically too complex for children while it's emotionally too simple for adults.
The tagline says it's: "A whole heap of horse-play in a play about a horse, and the man that wants to be one. Confused? So is Jeff. Unfortunately Jeff wants to be something he can’t."
That pretty much sums it up, except that I would argue against there being a "whole heap" of anything in this unfocused production. There's a bit of lots of things, and that's the problem.
Technically, as you would expect from the experienced and talented people involved, everything appears to be in place. The use of animation and video projection is innovative, the lighting is effective, the design is confident.
But The Gatekeeper lacks an engaging narrative and, failing that, a willingness to fully explore any aspect of its whole, whether that be dance, puppetry, animation, video, physical comedy, monologue. It sets something up and then, time and again, flits to the next thing within a few minutes. This might work if there were a clear, compelling story being told, but there is not.
The show starts when we meet Jeff (Jeff Michel), a man in a lab coat. He says, "Lab, lab, lab" a few times and then, seeing a balloon,"Balloon, balloon, balloon." After a bit more of this kind of thing, it's explained that Jeff is in fact inside his own brain. It looks like a lab but that's just the way his brain chooses to appear and the man in the lab coat is Jeff but also his brain... I guess.
Also inside the brain is a strange-looking chap wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a big hat, the Gatekeeper (Sam McMahon). He doesn't say much but smiles a lot and sometimes tries to stop Jeff from getting too close to a horse (a small plush horse, though sometimes it's represented by a shadow puppet, by video images or by a horse head that can be worn). It seems that Jeff wants to be a horse but that the Gatekeeper is telling him that he shouldn't or that he can't do it.
The third character is Bumface, as he introduces himself. He's played also by Sam McMahon - well, Sam McMahon's face projected onto his own spotlit posterior - and is an ingeniously entertaining character. His name alone endears him to younger members of the audience, not to mention his use of, you guessed it, bum puns.
Bumface keeps calling Jeff on the phone to give cryptic warnings but most of the time Jeff doesn't answer the phone and lets it go to the answering machine. Bumface, it seems, is the part of Jeff that feels small and stupid, the part telling him that he can't have his dream of being a horse. So Bumface tells Jeff not to trust the Gatekeeper although, as it turns out, the Gatekeeper may have Jeff's best interests at heart after all.
If that sounds overly complicated, well, it is. But it's also too simple because Jeff is the only real character in the piece, the other two being merely ideas or impulses, and even Jeff himself isn't so much a character as the most emotional parts of himself (ie. the part that wants to be a horse, the part that plays, the part that gets scared). There's little mention of Jeff's 'real' life and, as a result, not much for an audience to invest in.
There are a few nice moments. I particularly enjoyed the physical comedy, such as when the Gatekeeper is trying to stop Jeff and they end up dancing foolishly together. There's a clever bit involving the duo and some elastic (if you've ever played tug of war with a rubberband and waited to see who's going to let go first, you can imagine). These moments are exuberant and funny, a bit like a Marx Brothers routine...but such moments come and go, never building to anything. Every time it seems the show is about to finally lift off, it doesn't.
Jeff Michels is a fantastic stage presence and his 'silly walk' and bizarre, obsessive persona here is fun. Sam McMahon, with his goofy charm, is an equally likeable performer. So why, as the Gatekeeper, does McMahon barely utter a word? Why, as the marvelous Bumface, are almost all his interactions with an answering machine? Why don't we get to see anything of what Jeff's life is like so that we understand why he wants to 'be a horse'?
The writer and director of this piece have attempted a more nuanced and complex investigation of the idea of 'chasing your dreams' than is typical, particularly in the realm of children's entertainment, and there's something to be said for that. But it's all ideas and no story and I don't think that's what audiences want or expect from this company.
Terrapin Puppet Theatre presents
Directed by Frank Newman
THEATRE ROYAL SEASON
Venue: Theatre Royal | 29 Campbell Street, Hobart
Dates/Times: Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 September, 11am and 2pm
Tickets: $14 - $26
Bookings: www.theatrroyal.com.au | phone 03 6233 2299
September 8, Triabunna Hall
September 9, Adventure Bay Hall, Bruny Island
September 20 - October 26, touring Tasmanian schools