Old Trouts Jabberwocky a darkly comic pastiche of the primeval

There aren’t too many non-substance-use-related experiences more disorienting than an evening of Old Trouts puppet theatre. Their latest, Jabberwocky, is a darkly comic pastiche of the primeval — which could probably be the tagline for almost every Trout show for the last 18 years. Apart from that, it’s a bit hard to describe.

The show is a puppet-mediated meditation on a seven-stanza poem by Lewis Carroll — in fact, a poem within a novel. Alice (of Wonderland fame), in the sequel Through the Looking Glass, finds the poem and can’t make sense of it. “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” This is about the best description of the Trout aesthetic that I think I’ve ever seen, going all the way back to The Unlikely Birth of Istvan in 2000, which was a fast-paced journey through layers of a thematic onion, and still sometimes keeps me awake at night.

The poem itself is structured like a fragment of oral history, a tale spun by a medieval bard — precisely the kind of thing that gets the Old Trouts fired up. It’s about a young boy who is warned by his father to take care to avoid the fearsome titular monster, but instead the boy sets out to find and defeat it. The poem ends by repeating the first stanza, which is either a nice bit of closure or a sinister deja vu, depending on your philosophical bent.

In this retelling, the themes are expanded with some additional exploration of birth, death, fear, family, legacy, and the epic struggle between good and evil. However, although this is an extrapolation, there is no text that isn’t found in the original poem. The action is essentially wordless for long stretches, which is an interesting choice when representing a poem that is known for its legendary lexicon of nonsense words (“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”). This does allow the space to use your imagination to fill in the gaps with whatever nonsense lives in the dark corners of your own brain — but at times the vignettes appear fragmented, and it takes some concentration to tie them together.

The design of the show is inspired by a 19th century phenomenon of toy theatre — even the show’s program is designed to be taken home and made into a toy theatre, complete with Jabberwocky puppets to re-enact the show at home. There is a beautifully anachronistic reliance on 19th century stage techniques, with scrolling backdrops cranked by hand. And as usual, the Trouts have built puppets that are truly distinctive, creating a family of rabbits that will no doubt become the visual signature for this show. Performers Pityu Kenderes, Teddy Ivanova, Nicolas Di Gaetano and Sebastian Kroon deliver a seamless choreography of dozens of characters and animated objects.

If you’re looking for an escape from harsh reality and a bit of a laugh, this isn’t the show for you. But if you don’t mind a little intellectual effort, made enticing by some delightful performances and the odd comic surprise, then check this out.

(Photo courtesy Jason Stang Photography.)

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Jabberwocky runs until March 4 at the DJD Dance Centre. For tickets please click here.

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Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.