Alvin and the Sputniks 

A touring, one-man puppet show takes on climate change with a journey to the deep sea.

click to enlarge St. John Cowcher will handle the puppet master role in “The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer,” operating lights with his feet, puppets with his hands and other effects with a Nintendo Wii controller.

St. John Cowcher will handle the puppet master role in “The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer,” operating lights with his feet, puppets with his hands and other effects with a Nintendo Wii controller.

Alvin Sputnik’s body is made of latex. His head is made of Styrofoam. Standing upright, he measures about 10 inches tall. Yet this little guy has journeyed to the ocean floor, searched for a way to save humanity and won hearts around the globe.

And this week, the Australian one-man puppet show, “The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer” comes to Richmond for, wait for it … a handful of performances.

Set in a world where the oceans have risen so high that only the tops of skyscrapers rise above the water, Sputnik is dispatched to the bottom of the sea to find a world that can save humanity.

“I wanted to do a show that in some way was about this climate catastrophe that we find ourselves in,” creator Tim Watts says via Skype from Perth, Australia. “This little deep-sea diver guy just seemed to fit with that.”

The puppet’s journey began when Watts attended a puppetry workshop six years ago. Placing a foam ball atop a white latex glove, he unwittingly gave birth to Alvin Sputnik. Knowing exactly what to do with his new creation, Watts promptly abandoned the puppet for a year and a half. It was only after he began devising a project for fringe festivals that he came back to Sputnik at the suggestion of friends.

At the start of the story, Sputnik’s wife dies and her soul sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Like Orpheus following Eurydice into the underworld, Sputnik volunteers for a crackpot effort to seek out a hollow world at the bottom of the ocean. Once located, Sputnik is supposed to dislodge this world and bring it to the surface.

“He’s a bit of a reluctant hero,” says Watts, a member of Perth’s the Last Great Hunt theater company. “He joins the effort, but primarily for his own selfish purposes, trying to go after his wife. There’s a slightly fable-ish, magical quality.”

The show was a darling of the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival, with The New York Times saying that “its mix of environmental disaster, twee humor and cutie-pie whimsy makes it something akin to a theatrical ‘Wall-E.’”

Since that fringe festival, Watts has traveled the globe performing “Sputnik.” With fringe festivals in mind, which highlight experimental and small-scale performances, Watts built the set with his father.

Because such festivals offer limited tech options, Watts says, a lot of shows “end up looking quite bland.” So he went for visual impact using a projector and screen. All elements of the show pack down into a single suitcase. “You can go anywhere, you can do any kind of scale, you can go anyplace … and it’s all achievable visually with animation.”

Though the show features dialogue, the story is told mostly through physical actions and puppetry, animation, lighting and sound effects.

After more than 400 performances, Watts decided to hang up the glove and focus on other projects. But he’s created a show that can be taken on by performers he’s trained. In Richmond, St. John Cowcher will present the show.

Single performers can operate the lights with their feet, puppets with their hands and cue all other effects using a Nintendo Wii controller.

“You, as the performer, get to choose the time when something happens, in case you want to improvise a particular bit or let a moment really sit [for dramatic effect],” Watts says. “Those elements are manipulated almost like another puppet.”

Putting all elements of the show in the hands of another performer also allows “Alvin Sputnik” to travel cheaply without additional crew, though in practice it became useful to have another person on the road to handle managerial affairs.

Watts is working on two new plays: “Monroe and Associates,” in which a single audience member plays a private detective, and “Bruce,” a two-person puppet show. Though he’s moved on to other projects, the tale of Alvin Sputnik still has a personal place in Watts’ heart, even though it’s not autobiographical.

“The show is ultimately about grief and loss and loneliness, but at the same time it’s a very hopeful show with a cute little puppet guy,” he says. “It appeals to people because it’s really fun and endearing. He’s searching for something.” S

“The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer” plays Feb. 12-15 at Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse, 600 E. Grace St. Tickets are $20. Visit richmondcenterstage.com or call 592-3330.

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