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Ishmael (Dead Puppet Society) – theatre review

Dead Puppet Society is an Australian theatre company highly regarded for its creation of puppet-based visual theatre works of spectacle and wonder. Its shows have always been inventive. Its latest production is Ishmael. The puppetry comes courtesy of dozens of models and dioramas, which are projected in rotation on a massive scale through a live feed video. Creative geniuses David Morton (director and designer) and Nicholas Paine (creative producer) take audiences into a new world of storytelling.

As its name implies, Ishmael is based upon Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick story of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of revenge against a giant whale. Rather than an obsessive quest across the ocean, however, this story’s voyage is of a climate refugee in the outer solar system. The year is 3022 and Earth as we know it is dead, having suffered a catastrophic environmental collapse. The surface of the planet is smothered in a layer of clouds, all except for the tops of the tallest mountains, which are controlled by a wealthy corporate class.

Photos by Dean Hanson

Ishmael (Ellen Bailey) is a freedom fighter in a corporation-sanctioned camp below the cloud. “Call me Ishmael” she states when introducing herself to a pilot testing officer (veteran Brisbane actor Barb Lowing) at the play’s outset. Though she may have come from the latest uprising, as specialised labour Ishmael says she is ready to work for the corporation. Eager to disappear and clearly on edge, she is not much for courtesy, ready to pull a gun at even the slightest hint of potential provocation.

More cagey than enigmatic, however, the character doesn’t provide us much in terms of backstory, making it difficult to become invested in her journey. That means that when her motivations are eventually revealed late in the work, they come almost as surprises rather than justifications. Still, Ellen Bailey does a good job in bringing the protagonist’s emotions to life with a committed physicality that animates her every reaction.

Patrick Jhanur has a calm and steady presence as the 900+ year old android Queequeg. Judging by the audience’s audible reactions, his humanity sees many of them invested in his relationship with Ishmael. Lowing transitions between multiple roles – including Captain Ahab, who hires Ishmael to avenge her brother’s death – with ease.

As worthy as the performances are, the most impressive aspect of Ishmael is its audio visual engagement. What begins with the calming HAL 9000-like artificial intelligence system aboard the spaceship MV Pequod, peaks with a dynamic soundscape (sound design and music supervisor Tony Brumpton). That includes an original music soundtrack by indie pop musician Bec Sandridge. It is just unfortunate that it sometimes competes with the dialogue.

Cameras stream intricate miniature models live to the big screen, which serves as the stage’s backdrop, with the puppetry occurring just offstage. Stunning visual projections (projection designer Justin Harrison) sweep us into the story’s intergalactic setting. When the three characters make their way out in individual craft to mine asteroids, the result is sci-fi action the likes of which you don’t expect to see on stage.

Not only is this ground-breaking theatrical experience visually arresting, but it carries with it an uplifting message about reaching for the stars. As such, it is a must-see Brisbane festival show.

Ishmael is showing at QPAC until 18th September, 2021.

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out 
Blue Curtains Brisbane.

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