News Column

Alvin Sputnik, deep sea explorer lands his craft at WSU

September 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 20--In the not-too-distant future, mankind is teetering on the edge, figuratively and literally.

Civilization is barely clinging to life on the craggy edge of the world's highest peaks as polar ice caps melt and oceans are rising.

One man is chosen above all others to explore the depths of the sea. He is seeking a new habitat for humanity.

That one man is the intrepid Alvin Sputnik. Sputnik, grieving the fresh loss of his wife, has a secret sub-mission as he seeks to save mankind -- to reconnect with the soul of his lost love.

That is the plot of the whimsical and poignant multimedia theater piece "The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer," coming to the Weber State University cultural affairs series on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Sept. 26-28, at the Browning Center.

"As a series, we want to be inclusive of the entire community," said cultural affairs director Diane Stern. " 'Alvin Sputnik' is a fantastic program, a really genuinely sweet piece with a great message that should have broad appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds."

The award-winning theatrical performance was created by the multitalented Australian performer Tim Watts, and was first performed at the Blue Room Theater in Perth in 2009. A musician, puppeteer, animator and actor, Watts used all of those skills to create Alvin's story.

Perth is one of the most geographically isolated cities in the world. Much as communist Cuba's isolation had an enormous impact on the development of that country's original music, Perth's isolation saw theatrical productions developing along very original and unique lines, said Libby Klysz, the manager of the American tour that comes to Ogden.

"We don't have as strong an influence as other places, so we tend to paint things differently in Perth," Klysz said. "A lot of work we create presents a different perspective internationally. People seem to be very affected by it as a result -- it really is something new to them."

An ideal Alvin

After taking his creation worldwide for more than four years, Watts wanted to move on to other projects. Yet he was not ready to let his gentle friend, Alvin, fade away, so he held auditions to handpick new Alvins. It would take a special band of brothers to take on this one-man-show. They needed a very special skill set.

One such talent was St John (an old English name pronounced SEN-jen) Cowcher, who will bring Alvin to life for Ogden.

Cowcher, a Perth actor, felt positive about his chances when he went on the casting call for "Alvin." Puppetry, ukulele playing, singing, operating lights and cues during the show -- oh, and staying in character and acting the entire performance while doing all of the above -- were required. Strangely, Cowcher had these very techniques at the ready.

"I just happened to play a bit of ukulele, and I had just gotten off of (a show) at a puppet theater," said Cowcher. "It was the coming together of a number of obscure skills that made me perfectly suited to be Alvin Sputnik."

"Alvin Sputnik" is a true one-man show. The actor, who never leaves the stage, is acting in character, singing and playing music, operating the Alvin puppets, and setting off sound, light and music cues with the aid of foot pedals and Bluetooth. Cowcher had only one week to master it all before his first performance.

"That is a swift amount of time to try to learn anything, but particularly a solo piece like this," Cowcher said.

The live action must flow seamlessly into animation, and in turn into puppetry, both 3-D and shadow-style, to keep the audience grounded in Alvin's reality.

Said Cowcher: "It is a sort of multitasking, and rather frantic to be in the middle of, but is it so beautiful that you do not mind."

Cowcher has found it is best not to overthink while being Alvin.

"Once you get into it, you figure it out," said Cowcher. "It all becomes quite fluid. If you think about it too much, that is when you slip. It is better to switch off and just fall into that world completely."

Many Alvins

There are many physical manifestations of Alvin that make up Alvin the character, said Cowcher.

"I am Alvin," he said. "And then there are a lot of different Alvin puppets, and then the animation -- there are a lot of layers to Alvin. It is fun, as it is so many aspects of the same character. You understand that as the show unfolds."

As for story structure, Cowcher said to also expect the unexpected.

"Tim is a massive fan of what he calls undercutting the audience expectations. He sets up this quite serious character at the beginning -- the performer -- and he stands up and gives them a little nod, then goes back to his desk. It is funny. But then, this show has fun with stereotypes, tropes -- playing with them and twisting them a bit.

"The audience seems to love that -- we get gasps, and cries of people going, 'Oh yeah!' as a familiar song plays. It really is suitable for all ages, but perhaps that perfect age, the one that it hits the sweet spot with so far as getting a big reaction, are people from about 17 to maybe early 30s."

Gentle message

The basic story of "Alvin" is, in fact, an ancient one that stretches back at least to the story of Orpheus. A master musician, Orpheus had everything he wanted in life, until his wife, Euridyce, is taken by death. He follows her into the underworld, just as Alvin does his own lost love.

"It is truly a story old as time," said Klysz. "But then, there are no new stories, just more interesting and whimsical ways of telling them."

Of course, the ancient Greek lovers weren't fretting over climate change and rising ocean levels. Instead of the distant mythical past, "Alvin Sputnik" is set in a speculative future. Things are definitely dystopian in Alvin's world.

"When the idea was being developed, Tim wanted to say something important without shoving 'The world is ending!' down everyone's throat," said Cowcher. "So he just happened to set it in the future, exaggerating the ice caps melting and leaving only these pockets of humanity left. It is a fantasy futuristic setting. But it does have some sense of reality, meant to get people thinking a little, perhaps."

Added Klysz: " 'Alvin' is high-concept in the gentlest way possible. It is post-apocalyptic -- but it is also, in the end, a story of undying love."

Contact reporter Linda East Brady at 801-625-4279 or lbrady@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter @LindaEastBrady.

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(c)2013 the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah)

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