Theater review by Helen Shaw
In Feral, a puppet show by the Edinbugh-based company Tortoise in a Nutshell, three puppeteers move small Sculpey people around designer Amelia Bird’s black-and-white set, which is about the size of two tabletops. The design is charming and careful. On a cone-shaped surface, Bird and the company have fitted a proudly lo-tech version of a little British town, made from white paper decorated with black pen. The structure is lit with desk lamps, which the camera-wielding performers can bring down to spotlight a specific section; overhead, a screen shows us their live-edited video, as Foley artist and composer Jim Harbourne provides sounds and occasional oompah music. We’re introduced to young Joe and his sister, Dawn, who—we gather from this nearly wordless piece—love their hometown and its pleasure pier. On their big night out, they attend a Punch and Judy show: puppets watching puppets. But when a new arcade arrives, sponsored by the slithery mayor, it displaces first the park and then the entire civic order. Joe watches in dismay as everything sweet about the town turns into trash and violence.
Things get hectic during the long descent into chaos. I can’t be sure, but I think Joe’s sister dies in a riot and hooligans mail a dead cat through a lady’s postal slot. That’s dark: Despite the cute round-headed figurines, this show clearly isn’t meant for kids. So why is it so deliberately simplistic? Pretty places at the seaside don’t implode just because someone builds an arcade. Perhaps we should be thinking about overapplied austerity principles, defunded local councils, widespread deindustrialization and the impact of low-cost airfare on Brighton-esque resort towns? I don’t know. For a British audience, who would find those things too obvious for words, there might be a different thrill here. Why yammer on about austerity if you know all about it already? But in New York, far from its own context, Feral seems rather hysterical. Despite the omniscience of the puppet techniques, it’s a child’s-eye view of the world.
59E59 Theaters (Off Broadway). Created by Tortoise in a Nutshell. Directed by Ross MacKay. With ensemble cast. Running time: 55 mins. No intermission.