Reviews

The Immortal Jellyfish Girl ****

By: Isa Goldberg

January 30, 2023: Creating ridiculous, and wonderous stories, gathering the elements from all corners of the world, and delivering climactic scenes with exceptional puppetry, hi tech projections, lighting, and sound effects is uniquely Wakka Wakka. In addition to their international acclaim, the non-profit theater company has garnered multiple New York theater awards, since its inception in 2001.

By: Isa Goldberg

January 30, 2023: Creating ridiculous, and wonderous stories, gathering the elements from all corners of the world, and delivering climactic scenes with exceptional puppetry, hi tech projections, lighting, and sound effects is uniquely Wakka Wakka. In addition to their international acclaim, the non-profit theater company has garnered multiple New York theater awards, since its inception in 2001.

This recent work, “The Immortal Jellyfish Girl”, currently at 59E59 Theaters is part of their evolving Animalia Trilogy. Fundamentally, the titular journey reflects on living things –  animals, oceans – everything that lives on our planet. Specifically, in “The Immortal Jellyfish Girl,” the focus is not just that which lives on our planet, but more importantly that which we hope will survive our destruction of it.

Set in 2555, the technological world depicted here reflects our contemporary values- especially our inhumanity, and rejection of humanistic principles.  However, in Wakka Wakka’s meta-theater, technology serves to create visually and auditorily arresting images, and impressions. When you look at it that way, one can only imagine the transformations we are capable of achieving. No spoiler alert here. If man can destroy the animal kingdom, it can also protect it. 

Grabbing references from various mythologies, the story is set in wartime. “There’s always a war. It’s classic,” the Narrator opines. Of course, it is just one of many ongoing wars, and it is stirred by the technocracy, and motivated by greed. 

Enter Aurelia, “The Little Jellyfish Girl”. A Medusa-like character, she wards off evil, and fulfills her quest when she meets her Romeo…a lost boy, named Bug. While unable to sustain their romance in the face of climate change, and planetary destruction, they prove that love is the higher power. It exists above and beyond all.

Built around a narrative with lots of twists and turns, there is a lot to follow here. Aurelia we learn is the creation of the Turtle – a threatening looking mammalian-like creature, with a very long tongue. That she always had a difficult relationship with him, is easy to appreciate. To rebel, she creates new animals, and new life from the hovel of toxic waste. But she finds obstacles everywhere – typical ones, like “We can’t do anything until we win the war.” 

Such classic opinions have weighed us down for too many millennia. The action moves, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

More than cerebral ideas flow rapidly on this stage. The choreography is action packed and stunning, as the animal puppets are constantly being attacked. Bug’s beating wings, like a hummingbird’s, carry Aurelia to the ocean, and later new jellyfish fall gently from the sky. Aurelia herself is powerfully sincere – a lot more “Woman King” than Topo Gigio or Howdy Doody. 

Inspired by images of wild animals in Africa, cyborgs from Marvel Comics, and real jellyfish, puppeteer Kirjan Waage with co-director Gwendolyn Warnock have created a myriad universe through puppetry. Most fascinating is the Doyenne, the iron fisted dictator of the technological world.

Represented by the bust of a head, the Doyenne swings androgynously, from masculine to feminine in appearance. While puppet head floats above the animal kingdom, its grossly formed arm exhibits the physical dynamic of too much reach.

And beneath the digitally morphing head, a series of rectangles reflect the plight of the puppet animals. We see the ravages of war, and the digital shapeshifting ease of the Doyenne, through projections. Erato Tzavara’s designs plumb the supernatural, as in a sci fi thriller.

Given that the puppets appear to speak in their own voices, and not that of a nearby ventriloquist, the audience is struck with a transfixing sense of reality. Sound Designer Thor Thorvaldsson uses natural sounds – the ocean, fire, voices, and alters them technologically to create a universe of sound that mirrors the onstage conflict.

Indeed, the power of the puppet show is that it makes us see things in a new way – absurd, laughable at times, but with the potential to be uplifting. An evening with Wakka Wakka is all about the human drama.

The Immortal Jellyfish Girl
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues) 80 minutes, no intermission. www.59e59.org
Through February 19
Photography: Richard Termine