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Puppets Reflect a Nation's Crisis In "Saga," Wakka Wakka explores Iceland's economic collapse

By RANDY GENER


"Why did the elephant leave the circus? Because he was tired of working for peanuts! Wakka wakka wakka!"

That's typically how Fozzie Bear's catchphrase works: Someone tells a corny joke, and then they add "wakka wakka" to let you know you're supposed to laugh. Or groan.

However, no one's groaning about Wakka Wakka Productions. The puppet-based New York theatre collective may have playfully named itself after Muppet-speak, but their work inspires genuine enthusiasm. Since 2006's The Death of Little Ibsen, their pieces have joined works like War Horse and the repertory of Basil Twist to remind audiences that puppetry can be the realm of serious, adult artists. (The company has been showered with awards and nominations, including a 2008 UNIMA Citation of Excellence and a 2011 Village Voice Obie Award grant.)

Wakka Wakka is currently presenting Saga, which performs through April 14 at Baruch Performing Arts Center. Featuring 30 original puppets ranging from 3 inches to 10 feet high, the production is dubbed "a modern Icelandic epic."  Why?  Because its Viking-inspired narrative pivots around the costs of the 2008 collapse of the Icelandic banking system. It was the worst financial crisis in that country's history, and relative to the size of its economy, the largest collapse suffered by any country in world economic history.

Saga tells the crushingly relevant story of Gunnar, an average Icelander trampled by the machinery of his country's failing banking infrastructure.  Through the course of 65 minutes, Gunnar's life crumbles. His big dream of creating a tourist haven where guests can ride horses and watch the Northern Lights from a bubbling Jacuzzi falls to pieces.  His bills pile up.  The bank takes away his car and his house.  His wife and son abandon him.  Left alone to face the howling wolves, a tiny Viking spirit begins to haunt Gunnar as his mind edges closer to madness with each defeat.  This ancient Norse apparition grows physically in size. It exhorts Gunnar to settle the score by resorting to bloodlust and vengeance.

According to Gabrielle Brechner, a producer who oversees the company with married writer-directors Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock, it's not merely the use of puppetry that gives a show like Saga its distinctive identity. The  style of the puppets matters, too.

"Wakka Wakka's puppets are soft dolls," Brechner says. "Our puppets are mostly hand-and-rod puppets.  Some full-body puppets are made of spandex and pillow stuffing. The puppets Kirjan makes are evocative of the innocent puppets that we were interested in as children. His puppets are sweet and tender; they're very open and soft. You get enamored with them as soon as you look at them. This allows for an instant connection. You do give over yourself to them as an audience member."

The show also benefitted from its development at the Nordland Visual Theater, which is located in Stamsund, a fishing village with about 1,500 residents in the Lofoten islands of Norway. High above the Arctic Circle, Wakka Wakka was free to create and experiment until the show found its voice.

"Saga is physically the largest show we've done," Brechner adds. "Technically it features the most advanced, most intricate puppet work we've done. It is an evolution for us because we have never done a puppet show that takes place entirely in the present. It presents a new challenge for us to tell a story about a timely subject matter which the people in the audience are also experiencing firsthand."

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Randy Gener is the U.S. editor of Critical Stages, an international journal; the founder of the media project In the Theater of One World; and the winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism

Photo by John Stenersen