Rebirth and Renewal

Kir Jan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock’s “Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey,” is both a sweet story and a cautionary tale. Set in the future, it tells of the efforts to save a dying Earth by creating and raising new universes that humans can then inhabit. However, the Sun, which has now become a Red Giant and is about to consume the current solar system before burning out, is not having it and seeks to stop the one thriving Baby Universe, number 7001, from getting away.

The storytelling is reminiscent of Shel Silverstein in that it uses gentle, somewhat juvenile imagery and language to make a larger point about important, grown-up issues. As with Silverstein, the focus is on the story, and the politics are implicit rather than harped upon.

Wakka Wakka tells a wonderful, sweet story, while “Haunted” blessed only by its company

What makes this so charming is the puppet work, one of the hallmarks of the non-profit group Wakka Wakka, which is behind this show. From a robotic Stephen Hawking who greets you in the lobby to the wonderfully imaginative hand and full-body puppets in the show, the 75-minute piece has a big heart that’s infectious as the Baby Universe grows (expands, actually) and realizes that his function is not to follow his own lights (stars, actually), but to be of service. It’s a sweet story, and one that’s needed in today’s world.

Waage, who created the puppets, has a unique sensibility that doesn’t shy away from showing the construction of the puppets, barely masking the people behind them. It gives the show a warmth and accessibility that’s unique and filled with artistry — and a clear aesthetic vision. Particularly wonderful are the interpretations of the planets, such as the Moon, who is the henchman of the Sun and tries to capture and contain the Baby Universe.

The Baby Universe’s mother, whose costume looks something like a cross between the Virgin Mary’s and a nurse’s, is especially sweet, and never so much as when dealing with her tantrum-prone offspring. The puppet work by the five-member ensemble, including Waage and Warnock, is always sensitive and evocative, drawing one deftly into this simple love story.

Edna O’Brien’s play “Haunted,” which has its US premiere through January 2 at the Brits Off-Broadway festival, is heavily overwritten and clunky in its construction. Fusty is the word that most aptly describes it. Freighted with heavy-handed Shakespeare allusions, long, florid speeches, and storytelling that borders on the ponderous, it is an amateurish work, which is surprising because O’Brien has a long history of successful plays and novels. “Haunted” seems dated and overly mannered, like plays from the early part of the 20th century.

Fortunately, three wonderful performances by Beth Cooke, Niall Buggy, and Brenda Blethyn manage to breathe life into the play and make it an engaging, if not satisfying, evening.

Whatever the shortfalls in the writing, the story is intriguing. Mr. Berry, retired while his wife still works, has created the fantasy that she is dead and begins to sell off her clothes. He is bewitched by Hazel, a young woman who arrives to look at the clothing, and he plays up the story of his widowerhood to win her sympathies.

The very much alive Mrs. Berry, meanwhile, when not winning their bread, is trying desperately to figure out her husband’s recent estrangement from her. Apparently, they were once quite the couple, and Mrs. Berry is still in love.

The couple’s history is haunted by a child who died. Mr. Berry, with a history of extra-marital dalliances, becomes more and more careless in his attentions toward Hazel, until everything comes out in the open and things fall apart seemingly for good. There are a few more plot twists for good measure, but these are mostly just acts of desperation on the part of a playwright who has written herself into a corner.

Beth Cooke does a good job as Hazel, but she is really a foil to the interactions between Mr. and Mrs. Berry. As Mr. Berry, Niall Buggy does a wonderful job overcoming the writing and portraying a rapidly aging man trying to reclaim his youthful sexuality and spirit.

Brenda Blethyn is absolutely marvelous as Mrs. Berry. She handles the breakdown and disappointment of her character, her stoicism as well as her heartbreak, alternating between girlish flirtation and outraged middle-aged ferocity. She is an actress completely in control of the stage and her role, and it is the highlight and saving grace of the evening — and the play.

Complete Information:

BABY UNIVERSE:

A PUPPET ODYSSEY

Baruch Performing Arts Center

55 Lexington Ave., btwn. 24th & 25th Sts.

Through Jan. 9

Wed.-Sat 8 at p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7 p.m.

$20, $30theatermania.com

Or 212-352-3101

HAUNTED

59 E 59

59 E. 59th St.

Tue.-Wed., Sun. at 7 p.m.

Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;

Sat 2 at p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.

$60; ticketcentral.com

Or 212-279-4200

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