There may be no story of environmental cataclysm and mass death more charming or enthralling than The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.
The Australian import, running this weekend at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, is a thoroughly entertaining bundle of contradictions. It’s gentle yet terrifying, sad and sweet, silly and morose.
The show’s premise contributes largely to that. The polar ice caps have melted, and most of humanity has drowned. The survivors have retreated to what little high ground remains. But as sea levels continue to rise, our hero, Alvin, must make a dangerous undersea voyage to discover humankind’s last hope. Complicating matters is death of Alvin’s beloved, Alvina, whose spirit he may (or may not) be able to reclaim during his expedition.
'It’s gentle yet terrifying, sad and sweet, silly and morose.' - Joff Schmidt
This simple-yet-epic tale is performed by a solo actor (Perth’s Sam Longley, performing the piece originally created by Tim Watts). But he’s got some wonderful theatrical wizardry to help him along the way, in a truly multimedia feast.
Edward Gorey-esque animations are projected on a circular screen centre stage, and blended with basic - but cleverly constructed - puppetry. It’s all enhanced with music, and simple, yet evocative, lighting effects.
The multimedia and live elements blend together seamlessly in Longley’s skilled performance. We see Alvin swimming along in an on-screen animation, for example - and follow as he swims straight off the screen and onto the stage as a puppet. A seemingly straightforward effect, but it calls for precise timing, and Longley had it perfected it in the school performance I saw.
While the show begins in a dark place, its overall tone is bittersweet - it’s very much a story of love and loss and learning to let go. But it’s also cut with plenty of big, goofy humour. Alvin is sent on his journey, for example, by a brash scientist who delivers a briefing that could come straight out of any cliched World War Two flick. “All of you will probably die,” he says with fairly good cheer as Alvin and his comrades set out on their mission.
The story’s dark roots may give you some sense of its ideal audience - it’s better described as “family friendly” than a “children’s show,” and I suspect the under-eight-year-old crowd may find the themes of death and loss, and some of the show’s scarier undersea encounters, a bit too intense. (MTYP recommends the show for ages ten and up.)
But older kids and adults - with or without children - who appreciate great use of multimedia (as in this past summer’s Fringe hit Against Gravity, for example) will find this a delightfully mesmerizing show.
Personally, I was absolutely entranced by Alvin Sputnik - and would gladly travel to the ocean’s depths with him again.
The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer runs at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People until Jan. 19.