PROVO — Tired of the same old shows produced in Utah year after year? Then break out of your theatre malaise with BYU’s Off the Map international theatre festival. For this week the university has imported acting troupes from Australia, England, and Iran to give Utahns a taste of innovative productions from overseas. As a result each of the three productions is a unique thought-provoking experience very much unlike anything Utahns typically see. Having all three shows together in one location in one day merely sweetens the deal and should make Off the Map irresistibly tempting to any jaded Utah theatre-goer.
The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer
Created by Tim Watts of Australia’s The Last Great Hunt theatre company, The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer combines comedy, animation, and puppetry into a touching show that is suitable for all ages. The show takes place in the distant future at a time when sea levels have risen so much that the few remaining survivors live in houses built on top of skyscrapers. After the title character’s wife dies, he searches the ocean depths to be reunited with her. Packed with plenty of heart and humor, Alvin Sputnik is 50 minutes of childlike whimsy.
What’s most pleasing about Alvin Sputnik is the simplicity of the story, which is almost a science fiction fairy tale. The addition of the animation, the enormously innovative puppets (such as the title character, who even dances and swims), and the cute humor only add to this play’s charm. The emotional range that the single performer (Sam Longley) creates with the puppets is impressive, especially in the play’s climax.
The English troupe Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Translunar Paradise shares some plot similarities with Alvin Sputnik; in both shows feature a man whose wife has died. However in Translunar Paradise the man (George Mann, who also directed and wrote the show) reminisces about the good and bad times with his wife (Deborah Pugh). In the course of the play her spirit comes to help him come to terms with his grief. The story of Translunar Paradise is told entirely through movement, pantomime, music, and dance without a single word of dialogue.
Translunar Paradise was one of the most emotional plays I’ve ever seen, and my wife cried for the last hour of the 70-minute running time. The story is emotionally wrenching and feels like the the prologue of Up told again and again and again. While the impact is undeniable, it is also tiring. Seventy minutes is an exceptionally long running time for what is basically a pantomime. On the other hand, Translunar Paradise is cathartic in the Aristotelian sense of the word: like an ancient Greek tragedy Translunar Paradise is a show that puts its characters through extreme grief and sorrow so that the audience can live vicariously through them and feel refreshed after the performance.
Hamlet, Prince of Grief
Hamlet, Prince of Grief, a “free adaptation” of Shakespeare‘s Hamlet created by Iran’s Leev Theater Group, retells the famous story in Farsi (with English subtitles). Afshin Hashemi, the only actor in the play, both tells the story and portrays Hamlet simultaneously. Items in his suitcase—including an assortment of toys that stand in for Claudius, Ophelia, Hamlet’s father, and Gertrude— aid in one of the retellings of the Hamlet story.
This 30-minute play was the most intellectual of the three at the Off the Map festival, but I nonetheless found it satisfying. The presentation made me consider new questions about Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Is Hamlet fully grown up, or is he still an adolescent? What was Hamlet thinking in the time between his father’s death and when the dead man’s ghost visits him? Can Hamlet avoid his fate, or did his father’s visit set him on an unalterable course? It truly is a deft retelling that can raise new questions about a play that I thought I knew so well. Hamlet, Prince of Grief is also enjoyable for its blend of Shakespeare’s story with modern culture. (I loved how Hamlet’s cell phone interrupted his speeches while still propelling the plot, a nice touch from playwright Mohammad Charmshir and director Mohammad Aghebati.)
Off the Map is a treat for Utah theatre fans, and its appeal is not limited to those with avant-garde tastes. I urge all readers to give Off the Map a try because it is likely that they will find something that they enjoy. Off the Map is the sort of theatre that I wish I could attend every week. It’s entertaining while also being emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually fulfilling. I applaud BYU’s efforts to introduce their audience to international theatre styles and eagerly await next year’s festival.