Theater Review: “Baby Universe” at Studio Theatre

Wakka Wakka Productions presents a dystopian future, in which all hope depends on a tiny, adorable puppet replica of the universe.
Baby Universe, produced by Wakka Wakka Productions and Nordland Visual Theatre. Photograph by Igor Dmitry.
Baby Universe, produced by Wakka Wakka Productions and Nordland Visual Theatre. Photograph by Igor Dmitry.

In
Baby Universe’s, well, universe, temperatures on earth have reached such blistering proportions
that humans shrouded in gas masks huddle in bunkers, occasionally pausing to remember
what oceans were and what rain sounded like. Humankind’s future depends on its ability
to clone another, identical universe, with an earth not yet smothered by excess carbon
dioxide or stripped of all its natural resources by a species that’s fast dying out.

Sound preposterous? On Sunday, the day of the Baby Universe press performance, temperatures at Death Valley
reached a skin-searing 128 degrees, 19 firefighters died battling wildfires in Arizona,
and the needle in Las Vegas passed 117 for the first time ever. So while
Baby Universe, an endlessly creative puppet show by New York’s Wakka Wakka Productions, might sometimes
feel overly didactic, its message is timely: When you can’t stand the heat, better
hope there’s an infant cosmos able to sustain complex ecosystems being nurtured in
a lab somewhere.

Yes, it makes zero sense that a baby replica of the totality of everything ever known
would be the size of a smallish kitten when first hatched, but it’s easy to suspend
disbelief because this baby, crafted by
Kirjan Waage, is so darn cute he could have his own BuzzFeed listicle. Baby Universe 7,001 hatches
in a lab after a retina-blasting flash of light and is operated along with the other
puppets by a team of five wearing grey boiler suits and gas masks, all the while being
lovingly taken care of by his “mother,” a nurse-like puppet with a soft voice and
a caring manner.

As 7,001 grows from a tiny, leeching thing to a more-precocious Elmo, complete with
the requisite oversize eyes, invisible
nose, and tiny limbs of all adorable miniature entities, he acts for all the world
like a real boy, throwing tantrums when he doesn’t want to put on his hat and asking
questions about his (lack of) reproductive organs. His awareness of his significance
to the survival of the human race doesn’t make him obnoxious, but it does make him
a target to the Moon, a Tim Burton-inspired blue puppet with elongated limbs and a
nasty sneer, who wants to snuff out this new universe to placate the dying Sun, a
grotesque monster with a shrunken head, a booming baritone, and an enormous, troll-like
body.

Wakka Wakka’s five puppeteers orchestrate set changes and provide voices in addition
to operating the many human and extraterrestrial characters of
Baby Universe. Directed by puppetmaster Waage and costume and mask designer
Gwendolyn Warnock in a collaboration between the New York company and Norway’s Nordland Visual Theatre,
the production plays with scale as well as audio and visual effects, so one minute
the protagonist is a puppet on a rooftop, the next a tiny speck on top of a scaled-down
skyscraper. Video artist
Naho Taruishi also creates multimedia elements that add magic to the show’s more fantastical moments.

Without its sweet, courageous hero,
Baby Universe might be an uncomfortably dark, occasionally gruesome look at mankind’s future, even
with its funny, drink-addled collection of planets and its mind-bending special effects.
But like all good undersize lifeforms, this baby somehow inspires the most resilient
element of all: hope.

Baby Universe
is at Studio Theatre through July 14. Running time is one hour, with no intermission.
Tickets ($39 to $61) are available at Studio’s website.

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