Theater: When Life Gives You Economic Collapse, Let “Saga” Make You Puppetade

SAGA_9120-photo by Jim Baldassare

Photo/Jim Baldassare

The bills moved of their own accord, swarming the man. Each time he attempted to flee, forces larger than himself ripped him through the air, closer and closer to the unfinished Jacuzzi that was both a symbol of his financial depression and his literal doom. As the rage boiled within his Icelandic spirit, an ax-carrying Viking appeared, each time larger than the last, his calls for blood becoming harder and harder to ignore. Penguins presaging his pressing problems haunted his dreams, the land itself whispering against him; the glittering confetti from the Champagne dance he performed after taking loan after loan and making investment after investment remained there on the floor as he returned to the bank with a shovel to re-enact delusions from American Psycho. You forget, watching Saga unfold, feeling the uncanny chill of familiarity and anger, that this tormented debtor, Gunnar, is more than just a figurative puppet; Kirjan Waage’s intricate designs and the specificity of movement that his OBIE-winning Wakka Wakka troupe achieves are at times more lifelike than the real thing–Conan Magee, for instance, is focused entirely on controlling Gunnar’s feet, which allows Waage to doubly focus on the rest of Gunnar’s expressive body.

Those who saw War Horse on stage will understand this; those who love theater are no stranger to the truth-telling powers of illusion. More importantly, audiences of all ages will appreciate the scale and scope that puppetry can bring: scenes alternate–or sometimes operate concurrently–between the macro (a giant map of Iceland looms above the stage, out of which former prime minister Geir Haarde sometimes appears; the zoomed-out miniature of Gunnar’s vast, debt-riddled land) and the micro. There’s room enough for the barn in which Gunnar teaches his son (Andrew Manjuck) to shear the flock and receives notice of his eviction; the stoop of the bar outside of which Gunnar drunkenly attempts to screw his future wife, Helga (Andrea Osp Karlsdottir); and the exterior of his home, the windows of which he will yell through as agents attempt to auction off his sweat-soaked property. Despite being performed live, within a theater, the story is not restricted to any of the usual limitations of the stage, and even if it were, co-writer and director Gwendolyn Warnock has found ways to richly double-down on the show’s compelling effects: for instance, the puppeteers wear black horse masks, the better to keep your focus on the puppets and to emphasize Gunnar’s simple passions: “You know I was a horse in a former life,” he proudly tells his son.

Saga forges a powerful balance between Wakka Wakka’s last two shows, 2010’s visually stunning science-fiction allegory Baby Universe and their heart-ripping 2008 masterpiece, the Holocaust drama Fabrik. Their larger-than-life designs are now balanced with a larger-than-life story, with Gunnar serving as an Everypuppet for the victims of the financial crisis. Even the rare missteps in Saga can be forgiven: after all, is Wakka Wakka not dealing with a crisis that arose from people getting swept up in the moment, convinced that their Big Ideas would only ever grow without bursting? Ultimately, Saga is an AAA-rated play (XXX at one point), and your own investment in these seventy minutes of personal/economic collapse is protected by the troupe’s own rock-steady commitment to their work: their so-very-human puppets.

Press ticket; general admission.

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