A message of brittle mortality delivered by a thing without life has an odd sort of poignancy. With Famous Puppet Death Scenes, the Old Trout Puppet Workshop invites audiences to laugh and ruminate with them at the misfortune of their beautiful wooden effigies, ultimately pointing inward, suggesting that the puppet’s lives aren’t far removed from our own.
Through a series of 22 vignettes, supposedly culled from larger works, the Trouts craft a production that delves into the humour, melancholia and boredom of death. Featuring everything from gigantic hands repeatedly punching stout balloon-men to a man gradually wasting away in front of his dinner, Death Scenes effectively captures many of the different emotional forms death can take. Not surprisingly, some work better than others.
Death Scenes is at its best when it strives for laughs. Scenes like the existentialist, German kids’ show “Das Bipsy und Mumu Puppenspeil” are a gut-busting riot, but also subtly question a culture so easily amused by morbidity. The recurring “Feverish Heart” shorts punctuate the play with their own unique trappings–a giant fist and an unsuspecting puppet–while poking fun at the show’s own concept.
Death Scenes isn’t entirely self-deprecating, though. Scattered throughout the comedic pieces are more thoughtful examinations of human confusion over death’s necessity. In “The Swede of Donnylargan,” minute details of a dying soldier’s life are recited, suggesting the hopefulness found in last moments as well as the realization of their finality. Emphasizing these conflicting emotions, frail narrator Nathanial Tweak repeatedly pops on stage to discuss his own feelings on the imaginary canon audiences are observing. These interludes tie Death Scenes together, lending a uniting thread to fragmented components.
The only time Death Scenes falters is when it takes itself too seriously. Certain pieces, while not completely missing their own point, fail to contribute to the greater show. The back-to-back, molasses-paced “The Cruel Sea” and “Never Say it Again” drop the show’s energy into the red with their unwieldy runtime, and don’t hit quite as hard as the Trouts would like them to. Fortunately, these rough patches are few in number, and more than made up for by the cyber- awesomeness of the rest.
With the final “Perfect Death Scene” delivered by the ubiquitous Tweak, it becomes clear that no death scene can really be perfect, but death can be. Wooden blocks dancing about on wires are allowed to die in audiences eyes because they were allowed to live by the same device. It’s through this unexpected intelligence that Death Scenes is able to exist as both an absurdist dark comedy where anthropomorphic fuchsia cones have their skins ripped off by Technicolor monsters, and a pointed examination of life’s fragility.