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Philosophy + Puppets = ‘The Four Lives’ at La Mama

Updated: May 3

Peggy Hepburn's 3-Word Review: Mythological! Scientific! Weird!

charles darwin puppet
Charles Darwin & his fabulous plants

If you happen to be running low on LSD, a good alternative is The Four Lives at La Mama: a whimsical philosophical journey, a tentacular breadth of ideas, a variety of innovative puppetry, & a kooky use of song combine to make this little show into quite the thinky puppetry moment. 

The launching point for the piece is this: the ancient philosopher & mathematician Pythagorus believed that we each experience four different lives in the forms of mineral, vegetable, animal & human. This divides the piece into disparate sections, like different plots in the same garden, each with plenty of ambient song & puppets constructed of papier-mache — some deliberately creepy, others more fanciful. The guessing game becomes which life we are in during each section — if you’re stumped, there’s always the program to guide you (I preferred to guess, it kept me on my toes). With an opening act based on Zombie Fungi — those fungi made legendary by the Planet Earth series that take over the bodies of ants & control their actions in order to propagate, one of nature’s more enterprising miracles, to be sure, & a form of biological puppetry — we are set asail with a smattering of various scientific facts blended with mythological stories. Whenever the piece threatened to get sleepy (most of the music was reminiscent of a kind of repetitive chant or lullaby) the presentation would take a refreshing turn: I was especially charmed by the use of DIY projectors, small pieces of translucent paper used as silhouettes to tell little fables, reminiscent of a magic lantern & one of the oldest tricks in theatre. The narrators, musicians & stage manager (with her audible stage cues — the ultimate puppeteer) were visible in the wings above the stages — yes stages, plural: one of the funkier experiments of this piece was having the audience relocate for each act, moving en masse to a new seating area each time, thus creating a kind of deliberate awkward social element that folded into the piece’s overall contemplation of energy, motion & the construction thereof. It was a kind of Big Bang in miniature at the beginning & end of each act, & effectively made the audience a massive puppet, our own motion controlled & conducted by the guidance of the stage hands. 

The strongest section starred a life-size puppet of Charles Darwin singing to his plants (as luck would have it, our Literature Editor Cowboy Books has just told me that a new volume of Darwin’s letters has just been published, as well as a charming review in The New York Review of Books). Here, the plants come to life as fabulously made-up creatures who get the most toe-tapping earworms in the whole show. Other highlights include a mythological vignette about the splitting of the genders reminiscent of Hedwig & the Angry Inch, a historical account of when the Catholic Church pressed charges against caterpillars for wreaking havoc on crops (this actually happened!); plus a singing tree (burning bush?), and a finale that contemplates the world without humans — the binding notion being humanity’s highly fraught relationship with nature, deity, & science, the question being who is puppeteering whom; as a hand puppet myself, I certainly appreciated the robust use of metaphor surrounding puppets, which was both analytic & fun. There were many strong ideas here, to be sure, though they felt a bit rough (it is experimental, after all, there’s a little license with roughness) — it would be exciting to see the show developed one or two steps further, some of the ideas isolated & expanded, the music & audio tightened for legibility, & more of Mr. Pythagorus — our Editor-at-Large, Nico, who accompanied me, reported afterwards that he thought Pythagorus was going to be a character in the show. Not a terrible idea!

How will Mother Nature deal with us when the chips are down? Like the mushroom spores that will eventually break down our bodies & all matter, the audience was scattered to the crisp spring night to consider this & other Big Questions. What kind of fungus are we? What do we propagate? Who is puppeteering whom? Your guess, dear reader, is as good as mine!

—Peggy Hepburn

The Four Lives is playing at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York City through April 21st, 2024. Tickets start at $25.

Created & directed by Theodora Skipitares. Produced by Skysaver Productions. Photos by Richard Termine. Images courtesy of La Mama.


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