The first time Bug and Aurelia kiss is as romantic as can be, even if Bug has to get past his initial reaction. “That really hurts,” he says. “That stings so much!” Which is what you get when smooching a part-jellyfish humanoid.
Aurelia is the title character of “The Immortal Jellyfish Girl,” though if 23andMe still exists in her postapocalyptic world, it might locate traces of kangaroo, frog, naked mole rat and other beasties in her makeup. Above all, “she is also 100 percent puppet,” as the narrator, a mischievous masked fox in shorts and red tails, informs us.
Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock’s play, devised with help from the ensemble and presented by Wakka Wakka Productions and the Norwegian company Nordland Visual Theater at 59E59 Theaters, is indeed a puppet show, and an ambitious one at that. It’s not just that the story is set in a poetically rendered 2555, but that Waage and Warnock, who also directed, blithely ignored the memo about coddling young audiences: Their show, for viewers age 10 and up, does not shy from the violence and death intertwined with life, and indeed several characters meet a tragic ending.
We are on a future Earth that has been wrecked by ecological disaster and where humans have evolved into two groups at war with each other: the machine-enhanced Homo technalis and Homo animalis, who are mixed with animals. If you have any kind of familiarity with stories of star-crossed young lovers, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that Bug (voiced by François Couder at the performance I attended) is part of the first group while Aurelia (voiced by Dorothy James) is an Animalis. And not just any Animalis: She has the ability to generate polyps that grow into various animals, thus providing a ray of hope for a dying planet. The Fox (Waage) explains that “she is the first living DNA bank in the world.” (The title is inspired by the so-called immortal jellyfish, a real species that somehow can age in reverse.)
As if ecological devastation weren’t enough, Bug and Aurelia must also deal with the machinations of the disembodied Technalis ruler, Doyenne, a featureless head floating above her lair.
Like the earlier Wakka Wakka/Nordland collaboration “Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey” (2010), the production revolves around environmental concerns, which it mines with humor, emotion and storytelling verve — the Fox is prone to breaking the fourth wall and making jokes aimed at the adults in the crowd. (“Where are the clones? Send in the clones.”)
Admittedly, it’s not always easy to follow, and the action hits some confusing potholes near the end, but “The Immortal Jellyfish Girl” does create an eerie, slightly morbid universe packed with bold strokes: a Lovecraftian squid and a lobster telephone that could have been dreamed up by Salvador Dalí; Bug suddenly sprouting a pair of batlike wings from his back; Aurelia surrounded by odd animal forms floating in individual tanks. The sonic imagination is just as refined, with the composer and sound designer Thor Gunnar Thorvaldsson consistently delivering an array of expressive effects — he digitally assembled prerecorded vocals into a composite to create Doyenne’s voice, for example. Even if you can’t figure out what the heck that prophecy is all about or what’s meant to happen to Earth at the end, the show succeeds on its own weird terms.
The Immortal Jellyfish Girl
Through Feb. 12 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.