Puppetry and epic-tragedy. Sadly, the two just don't mesh.
Puppets, by nature, make people laugh. They are absurd renditions of reality that ask us to smile and forget about the real world for a while. They are Punch and Judy and children's theatre. To make us cry, give us chills and beg our sympathy, a puppeteer jumps through many hoops for their audience.
The Old Trout Puppet Workshop dangles halfway through the first hoop with their rendition of Beowulf: A Viking Puppet Opera.
This play suffers from a major identity crisis-and it's not intentional.
In the past, the Old Trouts have found success in their frenzied comic rendition The Unlikely Birth of Istvan and The Tooth Fairy. Their new show was promoted in a similar manner, suggesting hilarity would ensue from "girls in horned helmets singing" alongside "drunken Vikings." Before the puppeteers took the stage, they had created expectations they were not able to fulfill. The result is an audience that laughs self-consciously at all the wrong times.
The Old Trouts try to be serious and tell a haunting, centuries-old tale of a Viking king terrorized by an evil monster, but their comic roots won't let them. The show feels chopped up and confused. It begins with the makings of tragedy as young Hrothgar murders his father to assume the throne.
From here, the play should crescendo into a final, tragic climax. Instead, it falters midway through as if the Old Trouts cannot successfully hold a dramatic tempo. They make the mistake of wedging in two out-of-place comedic scenes: one a dream sequence of dancing skulls and the other an over-the-top heroic entrance of Beowulf the saviour.
This misuse of comic relief cost the show its flow and left the audience looking at their watches wondering if the short, 55-minute performance was over yet.
The real epic tragedy here is that-notwithstanding the slow pace and comedy-tragedy identity crisis-Beowulf is a truly wonderful exhibition of music, movement and craftsmanship. Peter Moller's score mixes seamlessly with the story of Beowulf and the action that appears on stage, and it helps create the dream-like impression at the heart of the show. The puppets are brilliant. The subtlety of expression and movement is enchanting and encourages the audience to play close attention to everything on stage. As a story, Beowulf presents many dramatic opportunities that the Old Trouts tried to use to their advantage. Even with its faults, the audience does gain a sense of the greatness and solid poetics of the story.
Unfortunately, this production proves that every aspect of a performance needs to be present for success and that the novelty of sound and puppets can only carry a show so far.