By JON KAPLAN
If clowns of terror Mump and Smoot -- we miss them dearly -- were to do a puppet show, the result would look a lot like Famous Puppet Death Scenes, playing only until Saturday at the Young Centre.
Presented by Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, the piece is, on the surface, the work of philosophical narrrator (and puppet) Nathanial Tweak, an old-timer who collected the episodes from around the world to remind us of the imminence of death in our lives and suggest the importance of confronting our own mortality.
Yeah, it sound like a therapy session, but the show isn't the sort of lifestyle seminar you'd go to on a weekend retreat. It's often very funny and dark, with some surprisingly tender moments to offset the laughter.
In 20-plus brief scenes, Tweak provides a survey of shows by the likes of Samuel Groanswallow, Thorvik Skarsbarg and the never-say-die Nordo Frot, whose The Feverish Heart makes no fewer than four appearances during the 80-minute show.
Don't look these writers up in a dictionary of puppet playwrights. They're the brainchildren of the Old Trout collective -- Peter Balkwill, Mitchell Craib, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer, all dressed in funereal black -- the sometimes visible manipulators who work the puppets, which are a combination of rod puppets, hand puppets, heads and torsos.
Working with director Tim Sutherland, the creators are endlessly inventive in the stories they tell and the kinds of puppets they use. One of my faves is the German-language Das Bipsy Und Mumu Puppenspiel, featuring a pair of brightly coloured, single-eyed cones with tiny hands and a tuft of hair. Their tale, a show for children (as if), is a take on the classic Lady And The Tiger story.
Yet we're also treated to the sad ending of The Last Whale, and the touching, visually impressive King Jeff The Magnificent, in which the title character take an unusual, celestrial trip on New Year's Eve.
Oh, yes, and there's that series of Frot pieces, featuring a bulbous-headed puppet who can't seem to escape a malicious fist intent on squashing him. You know that the episodes are drawn from a mammoth work when you get to Act 19, Scene 78; thankfully we're only treated to a few select moments.
Not every scene in the show works, but they're all so short that if one doesn't succeed you're quickly on to another.
The company is masterful at creating expressiveness in inanimate objects, partly through how they're sculpted but also through their movements and the use of emotionally resonant soundscapes.
Not only do they use the three "stage" areas but bring out trunks, oversized books and other settings filled with magical surprises.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes plays only until Saturday at the Young Centre. See Continuing in theatre listings for details.