The weird and wonderful puppetry of Multiple Organism

The human body is a work of art. Or could it be that it is a prison? It might be a wonderland or a cultural artifact. Maybe it’s a puppet, pulled every which way by strings of nerves and muscle fibers.

Multiple Organism is a puppet show about the body—having a body, being a body. Created and performed by the Mind of a Snail Company, this show is utterly bizarre. It’s also funny, a little gross, and surprisingly charming. Using the same type of projector you’d find in any high school math class, the performers craft a multi-layered experience.

The creation of Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel, Multiple Organism won the “Cultchivating the Fringe Award” in 2017. For this award, Cultch staff members vote on their favourite shows of the year. There is no shortage of interesting, boundary-pushing theatre at the Cultch. Yet, Multiple Organism stands out for being among the oddest.

The show opens with a body, stark in the spotlight. Breasts are painted to become eyes and the body gains a mouth. Through video projection, Ziner’s mouth is cast on the canvas of Gabriel’s stomach. This wide-eyed composite being licks its enormous lips. The body begins to speak.

This mouth-body straddles the line between hilarious and grotesque. The being talks about being regularly asked if they are a boy or a girl and, in light of what we’re seeing, it does seem an absurd question. Like anybody, this multiple organism has to care for itself. Personal hygiene is important. We watch as the being flosses brick-sized teeth and combs out a dark “beard”. Really, it’s more of a goatee.

This composite organism is the narrator of the show, but we’re soon introduced to our central character. A blank canvas steps out onto the stage. Ziner, taking on the persona of a lecherous painter, licks a mustache and twirls a paintbrush. Forget subtlety, this paintbrush is downright phallic. The painter then gets to work, painting breasts onto the blank canvas. Gabriel’s head pops up from behind the canvas, but the painter pushes her down, repeatedly.

Eventually, the painted woman has had enough. She emerges from behind the canvas and takes hold of the paintbrush. Now, whatever phallic/artistic/generative power the brush possesses is hers to command. She retreats to the privacy of the washroom and begins to experiment. This is where things truly go down the rabbit-hole.

In their notes, Ziner and Gabriel discuss playing with everyday objects—a pair of toothbrushes, for example—and discovering, to their surprise, “how easy it was to ‘project’ gender onto the shapes of the items kept in a bathroom drawer. This, of course, is part of the magic trick of puppetry: puppetry doesn’t just take place on the stage, it happens inside our own minds”.

That’s the genesis and the process. The experience is witnessing a pair of toothbrushes use their bristles in shockingly sensual ways.  Projected on a screen, these toothbrushes become human-sized with their own desires and insecurities.

Part of the joy of this show comes from witnessing its creation. Sitting in the Cultch’s small Culture Lab theatre, you can watch the creators’ hands as they work to cast the shadow puppets. It’s truly fascinating to watch Ziner and Gabriel waggle bathroom items to give them swagger, or use water, paint, and layered slides to bring a beachside scene to life.

The duo also created their own music and all the many paintings and doodles. There is a strong sense of fun throughout—as if the audience stumbled into a playful jam session.

In private, the body might be about function, but in public it is about performance. At one point in the show, the composite mouth-body being reads from an “internal script” that includes life-goal items such as pillars of the community, good job, donors of moderately progressive theatre, and happy marriage. “Is this yours?” the being asks, bewildered. “Or could it be…mine?”

Multiple Organism doesn’t try to wrap it up or make it simple. The body is many: a multiplicity that cannot easily be explained. That makes it both strange and wondrous.

After the show, one audience member commented, “that was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s the weirdest thing we’ve ever made!” Ziner said, delighted.