Naked Knotted Neurons

In this devised piece, the company from the University of Pennsylvania’s Theatre Arts Program set themselves an almighty challenge in terms of the subject matter they deal with (and all in less than an hour). Their standpoint is that humanity is incapable of solving the many and varied problems present in the world. Though there may not be too many dissenting voices against this basic premise, a viable solution may prove to be rather more elusive.

The piece provokes reflection on what truly would benefit the world as a whole, and to what extent humanity can reverse its tailspin towards disaster.

One of the strengths of the piece is its immediate relevance to the world today. Combined with numerous references to modern-day struggles and conflicts, from racial tensions in Ferguson to police brutality in Tottenham, are moments of satire which tie the fantastical world of the play to real life. That said, its treatment of a variety of difficult themes is somewhat superficial as they are not afforded sufficient time to be adequately interrogated. Rather, the solutions offered are often too conveniently plucked from an apparently incidental line of dialogue.

This is still a piece rich in theatricality and invention. Each character finds their parallel in a puppet: their counterpart concealing a riddle which ultimately contributes to the overall plan for world improvement. The puppets themselves are well made and seem superficially to be the perfect means to discuss such deeply divisive topics, largely due to the anonymity afforded by the medium. Unfortunately this possibility is not utilised as it may have been, and the puppets act more as a ‘deus ex machina’, parachuting cryptic ideas to their human counterparts, rather than as the gutsy advocates for social change that they might have been. Indeed, some of the overly-casual treatment of the puppets by the performers somewhat reduces their impact and credibility as characters in their own right.

The performers do give solid performances and there are some touching moments. The idea of including the audience in contributing to the process - by working out the puppets’ messages themselves - has serious potential, as it furthers the notion of mankind’s future being the responsibility of all. To observe is ultimately not going to be enough. Furthermore, the physical result of the characters’ efforts ought to be seen: it is a metaphor that lasts long in the mind and aptly represents an idealised image of our best course of action.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusions reached are overly-simplistic and somewhat sugar-coated. Although not quite achieving a satisfactory solution to all the world’s problems (and who could realistically expect it to?) the piece does provoke reflection on what truly would benefit the world as a whole, and to what extent humanity can reverse its tailspin towards disaster. 

Reviews by Joshua Clarke


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The Blurb

Can cognitive neuroscience tell us who we, or the people around us, really are? Can we take puppets at face value? Do puppets have faces? This tragicomic puppet show explores the multiple personality in every individual. Scientific experiments go wonderfully awry when a bunch of theatre artists get their hands on top secret, super powerful puppets, stumbling onto essential biological secrets and accidentally unleashing atomic energy. This devised performance was co-created by students at the University of Pennsylvania, and merges their study of diverse subject areas, ranging from mechanical engineering to theatre to international relations.