“Are you happy? Everybody should be happy.”
The pressure’s on right from the opening lines of Ignorance, a fake documentary about the evolution of happiness, created by the demented minds at Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop.
In a deliberately drab voice-over, the mock doc’s unseen narrator (Judd Palmer) tells us a few facts about humanity’s dangerous pursuit of happiness – for instance that, by the time the show is over, 14 more North Americans will have jumped off bridges.
All the while, a yellow smiley-face balloon plays with a boy in a beanie, then slowly wraps its string around his neck and hangs him. What is it in the water in Alberta that creates puppeteers with such a pitch-black sense of humour? If Siminovitch Prize winner Ronnie Burkett was the first wave, the Old Trouts – who count among their collaborators the likes of Feist – are the stars of the second.
According to a collective creators’ note, Ignorance was partly inspired by a book called Stumbling On Happiness by Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, in which, through a mix of cognitive science and behavioural economics, the question of why humans are so bad at determining what will actually make them happy was explored.
You can see the influence in a reference or two to the workings of the frontal lobe, but otherwise Ignorance seems truly inspired by those old Disney cartoon shorts that spoofed instructional films and starred Goofy.
Ignorance shows us goofs struggling to be happy in two time periods.
In a prehistoric past, a caveman and cavewoman navigate a frozen wasteland, trying to survive and thrive, and find fleeting joy in chomping on a woolly mammoth leg or copulating in a cavern.
In the present day, a series of sad-sack, round-headed puppets are haunted by the spectre of fulfilment – visualized here by that taunting yellow balloon, usually floating just out of reach.
Most of the pleasure of Ignorance comes from Old Trout’s inventive designs, which blend together the bodies of the puppeteers with inanimate objects.
The gibberish-spouting couple from the Stone Age have heads that actually look made out of stones. Their hands are sticks, while their bodies are conjured by a bit of fur or hair draped across the operator’s arms. Meanwhile, in a time closer to the present, the sourpuss puppets all look like middle-aged, saggy-middled Charlie Browns, even the female ones.
The puppeteers, three men in pyjamas and Movember mustaches, manhandle their victims with mischievous glee. With a single horn atop their heads, they each look like Max from Where the Wild Things Are if he grew up (or didn’t) to be a hipster.
Much as it would be great to declare that Ignorance is bliss, the performers probably should not be having more fun than the audience. As the show wore on and the concept wore thin, that became the case, for this spectator at least, as the big boys onstage played interminably at unfrozen caveman versus woolly mammoth. The Stone Age sequences become banal; we have seen human nature parodied via Neanderthals everywhere from New Yorker cartoons to Bud Light commercials.
The contemporary vignettes are sharper. Most inventive is a scene where one of the round heads is at work in a happiness factory. He puts deflated yellow balloons on a conveyor belt, where they get sucked into a Rube Goldberg machine that pops them out fully blown up. Soon, this manufacture of happiness turns into a mad I Love Lucy routine, as the puppet fruitlessly attempts to reclaim his initial happy high. We’ve all been there, though hopefully not with such gruesome results. (A previous Old Trout show was called Famous Puppet Death Scenes; this show adds a few more.)
Having the narrator be prerecorded eventually becomes a drag; the show would have been livelier – literally, more live – with an onstage human for the puppets to interact with, perhaps comedian Bob Martin in a chair.
Still, the voice-over does have its moments. Is love, he asks, simply an evolutionary measure to make sure we don’t eat our young?
As for why we go to the theatre, the narrator notes, as authoritatively as possible, that this bizarre activity stems from a residual desire to “be in a group large enough to fight off a cave bear.” That seems as good an explanation as any.
Ignorance continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre until Dec. 15. It then plays at Montreal’s Espace Libre from Jan. 15 to 19.