Skip to main content

Scene from Old Trout Puppet Workshop live-action cartoon JabberwockyJason Stang

Oh frajbous day! Callooh! Callay! The Old Trout Puppet Workshop has premiered a dark and disturbing new live-action cartoon called Jabberwocky in Edmonton – and it's a relief, after a series of less-than-stellar stage versions of one Alice or the other at major theatres such as the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, to stumble upon a piece of theatre inspired by Lewis Carroll that is, indeed, inspired.

It has something timely to say, too: about toxic masculinity of all things, how the messages boys receive about masculinity when they are young inhibit their ability to be happy as men – and warp their behaviour toward others.

The Calgary-based puppet troupe and occasional Feist collaborators known as the Old Trouts for short have built this show out of an unlikely source: Jabberwocky, the nonsense poem that perplexes Carroll's Alice in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass.

"It seems very pretty, but it's rather hard to understand," was the young girl's verdict, you may recall, on the mock epic. "Somehow it fills my head with ideas – only I don't exactly know what they are. However, somebody's killed something: That's clear."

The Old Trouts have likewise let Carroll's words fill their heads with ideas – and let them spawn a fantastic visual world.

Jabberwocky takes audiences down a rabbit hole to a society populated by hares just slightly out of step with our human one. There, we follow the coming of age of a young male hare – weighed down by the pressure he feels to grow up and slay the Jabberwock, whatever that may be.

Most of the pleasure comes from the seemingly endless stream of weird puppets and props that are paraded across the stage – over a dozen artists and artisans worked on building them.

The look of the set is based on toy theatres of the Victorian era, its main element being four "scrolling panoramas" – backgrounds painted onto canvas that are cranked from one spool to another in metal frames. (How much more theatrical these old-fashioned contraptions are than the computer-generated scenery that fill so many plays' backgrounds these days.)

The hares in Jabberwocky appear in a different forms at different times. Sometimes, they are two-dimensional beasts on sticks, moved by the cast of four in front of the scrolling backgrounds painted in a style that seems like a cross between the children's TV series Arthur and Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python.

At other times, most effectively, they appear as hare-human hybrids, conjured by having the actors don mascot-like heads with huge haunting eyes. You can see a little bit of the the skilled puppeteers Nicolas Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanova, Pityu Kenderes and Sebastian Kroon peeking out underneath them.

The Old Trouts describe nonsense as "a variety of nihilism with a sense of humour" – and these hares do indeed inhabit a landscape as existentially bleak as it is funny.

Our young hare hero's mother seems to spend all her time doing the laundry, steam pouring off of her ironing board and filling the family home; his father, meanwhile, comes home every night and, after only the briefest attempt at bonding with his child, slumps into a chair with a drink.

Out of the radio come the words of Carroll's poem, transformed into news flashes or propaganda that warn listeners of the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird and, of course, the frumious Bandersnatch.

Just as Alice was baffled by the Jabberwocky poem, so much of the world frightens and confuses our young hare. He hears noises one day coming from his parent's room and peeks through the keyhole to see them doing what bunnies are known for. (A giant keyhole is held in front of the audience, so we catch glimpses as well.)

At school, meanwhile, the young hare is bullied by a large, jacked-up jackrabbit who makes off with the female bunny of his affection. He stews in his adolescent longing and waits for the day when he is old enough to exchange his toy sword for a proper vorpal blade and prove himself as the stories he's heard say he should.

The beamish boy's head has, literally, been filled with nonsense. And when he finally does enter the adult world, he slowly comes to realize it. There is a battle to be fought, but it is chaotic and pointless. Civilian life is just as lacking in purpose; he ends up in a soul-crushing job pushing paper and, then, in a marriage that he seems determined to keep loveless.

If you think that is dark, imagine the scene where our grown-up hare abandons his family and heads home to find the patriarch that once he looked up to and wanted to imitate is no longer able to relieve himself on his own.

Jabberwocky starts off very whimsical – an introduction where the puppeteers appear as themselves and recite the Carroll poem in a hammy way that is, in fact, way too whimsical. But by the end, this strange and affecting Old Trouts show is suffused with an aching sadness.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe