Reviewed by Cicely Binford
Well, they’ve done it again. Arielle Gray and Tim Watts have created a new show called New Owner for The Last Great Hunt, which is presented at PICA for the Awesome International Arts Festival over the next two weeks. New Owner falls along the same lines as their other exceptional multi-media puppet features, but this time it’s made with dogs and kids in mind.
New Owner follows a pound puppy’s adventures in life. He gets adopted by an elderly woman, who begins to have trouble with her memory, and while they’re out on a walk one day in the rain, he gets spooked and bolts away from his owner. Lost, alone and hungry, he makes his way through city streets until he finally meets another doggy and forms a steadfast friendship. When his friend is taken by a human in wellies and wielding a chain, he follows after them and orchestrates a daring escape fraught with peril. Will the pooch pals pull through and have a happy puppy ending? You’ll have to head down to PICA to find out, because I’ve probably given away too much already.
And it is worth your time to see how it ends for these adorable doggies. Gray and Watts’s story offers something a little bit more sophisticated for kids than the brightly-coloured fare that they usually get served. It’s a little bit dark, but that didn’t seem to stop the kids in the opening night audience from showing lots of curiosity and interest in the puppy puppets. Some of the humour is directed at adults; one particular moment elicited a shoulder shrug from a little patron in front of me because she needed help understanding why the adults were laughing so heartily. A quick explanation in the ear from dad was all that was needed to guide her, and the next part of the story soon drew her back in.
Tim Watts is not a terrier, but he sure sounds like one! His bark is incredibly authentic, and it’s definitely not a hound cue! He also probably doesn’t have a tail, but he sure knows how a doggy uses one. Arielle Gray slips easily into the physicality of an aging person, and then joins Watts as a doggy operator. Anthony Watts is again on board to help with the mechanics and design of the staging, which involves a screen with three movable panels that are raised and lowered to reveal the action behind. This is a really handy convention, and a high-tech version of the old traditional puppet theater that allows for quick changes in a small space. Occasionally the panels went up at different times, which may or may not have been intentional, and a couple of times the lights were left on a hair too long so that some scene changes were exposed.
Projected animation sets the location of each part of the story, and Gray and Watts have really mastered how to make a puppet ‘move’ through scenery, though it’s actually the animation that’s moving. They’ve incorporated sequences that resemble video games, a la Donkey Kong or Super Mario Brothers. This delights all ages, as we watch the dog slide down underground tunnels, jump over tall buildings, or float through murky reservoirs, for instance.
Rachael Dease provides the soundtrack, which is sometimes a little edgy and unsettling, but always tuned into the action and emotional tone of the story. Chloe Flockart gets credit for creating these cute creatures, and Liz Newell keeps all the cues nice and tight in this show which demands precision. Gray and Watts have made a fascinating, funny, and sometimes sad but sweet work that really replicates dog behaviour and lets us imagine what life must be like for our furry friends.
New Owner runs until 16 October at PICA as part of AWESOME. For more information and tickets, visit the AWESOME website here.