Toronto’s Artichoke Heart Collective’s We Walk Among You is a disturbing, thought-provoking puppet show
Imagine trying to answer a question such as “what makes a monster?” without using printed or spoken words. That’s what We Walk Among You, now on stage at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, tries to do. And in the hands of Artichoke Heart Collective, audience members receive a mind-blowing answer.
We Walk Among You is a dark, emotionally charged play. Puppets and soundscapes are used to tell the story of an insane doctor who tries to bring his son back from the dead by using methods that would make any decent person’s stomach turn.
Doctor Greenie kind of looks like a demonic version of the Muppet Beaker. He has moved into an abandoned hospital that looks more like Frankenstein’s castle. Dark and Gothic, it’s easy to envision the halls being a maze, with walls sweating, almost oozing humidity.
It takes two puppeteers to operate Greenie as he conducts his experiments. One works his body while the other operates his hands, made from two rubber gloves that look as nasty as an open sewer. His experiments include injecting drugs into lifeless creatures, attempting to rejuvenate them.
Greenie’s life-sized nurse assists with the experiments. She is constructed with what appears to be crinoline and a petticoat, but it is easy to develop a vibrant mental image of her. I saw her as a “dumb blond”, with a crush on the bad doctor.
Meanwhile, Doctor Greenie keeps his wife locked in a cell. She’s an elaborate and complicated puppet. She’s also a hysterical and dangerous person. As a puppet she looks like a giant squid with bear claws attached to her arms.
There are other characters in the hospital, all of them unusual. They might be “just” puppets, but they evoke intense emotions and vivid memories. My favourite was Cage Face. He or she was small, wearing robes and maybe even a straightjacket. A long chain trailed from one of his legs as he climbed onto the experiment table or was swatted around. I grew quite fond of Cage Face. He reminded me a LOT of my cat Isobel, with both his personality and his movements.
Cage Face makes friends with a visiting creature from the outside world. To the naked eye his new friend is little more than a few mangled coat hangers and one or two pinwheels taped together. In the hands of the Artichoke Heart puppeteers, it’s one of the most beautiful birds I’ve seen. I’m not even sure that she is a bird, but she makes an unforgettable, haunting sound as she glides around the hospital, her flight patterns part blimp, part butterfly.
Speaking of sound, Michelle Bensimon has done an amazing job as sound designer and composer. Her soundscapes set the mood, filling the theatre with intrigue and allowing our imaginations to run wild. The sounds made by the puppeteers were equally evocative.
My friend Stan, a survivor of early ’70s psychedelic music joined me for the performance. Both of us made the obligatory lines about We Walk Among You being an acid trip. Stan put an end to it though “That’s a cop out. It’s much more than that!”
Later, when Doctor Greenie notices the bird, he realizes that it is the key to bringing his son back from the dead. Greenie does things to the bird that made me furious. I thought to myself “you fucking bastard!” Only a monster would do that!
The climax of the play is something that one needs to see to believe, and I strongly encourage you to see We Walk Among You. In fact, I really want to go back again.
The first time seeing the play was very emotional, and I think a second viewing would add another layer, a more “thoughtful” one.
As Stan and I left the Tarragon we were excited, almost giddy. We felt young and great, laughing and asking each other questions, trying to figure out what we had just seen.
It’s rare that a play has such a positive effect, which is an indication that We Walk Among You is something very special.
By coincidence, a couple of David Bowie songs from Heroes came on my shuffle play on the way home: Sense of Doubt and Neukoln. They give really good sense of the mood and atmosphere of We Walk Among You
- We Walk Among You is playing until October 12 at Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, with additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm
- Ticket prices range from $15 – $25
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-531-1827
Photo of Doctor Greenie and his late son supplied by Artichoke Hearts Collective
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