In the Spring of 2006, I found myself looking forward to the final (at the time) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for one specific reason: the kraken. Specifically, the releasing of the kraken.
I actually had to Google it. I had no idea what it was. I knew the name sounded like something either fun, dangerous, or a delightful combination of both. My search brought back memories of that rather terrifying beast from the 1954 Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea classic. While the size and pure ferocity of it rattled me as a child, one particular thing gave me nightmares: the beak. I hate beaks. I keep a respectable distance between me and all birds – large, small, wonderful, or fake – because I know what those beaks are for and how easy a tearing opportunity my skin provides it. So, no thanks. The beak can stay.
Thankfully, when I went to see Atlantis: A Puppet Opera at the Vortex last night, a kraken was released, and it did not have a beak. It did, however, seem to be powered by the kind of childhood creativity and glee that we so rarely see these days. I hate creating a false sense of FOMO as much as the next person, but you have not truly lived until you’ve seen a small theater use all their creative brainpower to bring a truly badass kraken to life. Grown adults, with bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold, roll around on the floor in all-black outfits, each holding up and waving a long tentacle towards the puppet characters. It’s just magic.
And then, the highlight: the Atlantis prince, sporting a thick, clenched fist not unlike Hellboy, punches the kraken. The second highlight? When he jumps and kickpunches the kraken a final time. The third highlight? When, for the purpose of perspective in trying to create scale – the main characters look muuuch bigger than the tiny puppets off to the side, even though they’re theoretically the same size in the story – the Atlantis prince gives a fist-bump to a figure much, much smaller than him. It’s so weird and yet so beautiful.
I can tell you all of these things about this play – that the music is fun and skillfully, passionately sung, but that the lyrics may be difficult to understand; that the production design gives every color under the sun a day job; that watching the puppeteers gives you a great sense of the teamwork that goes into making a puppet move – but the best way to sum it up is with a couple I could not take my eyes off of.
They sat in the front row, just off to the side. The wife, on the right, sat there with a permanent WTF face. She either couldn’t believe it, didn’t like it, didn’t understand any of the lyrics, or just simply could not stop her brain from screaming WTF inside her head. But her husband? His face was the vision of unbridled joy. You could not wipe the smile off his face, even with a graffiti cleanup crew. You could see him recognize all of the things that adulthood had told him he should maybe put away. You could see that long-disconnected feeling of creating something with your own hands, regardless of how pretty or lopsided it looks, and doing something because doing it yourself is a stage of cool that we too often forget we can – at any time – pull ourselves up to.
It does not matter if I didn’t pay attention to the story because I was so fascinated by the music and the puppets. It does not matter if the story is surprisingly simple. It does not matter – and I recognize I say this as a Deaf/HH man – if the singing is on point or sounds more like shower singing with a techno beat. Making something worthwhile is not about making it perfect; it’s about making something that helps us separate the signal from the noise. It helps us hear the note too often drowned out. It helps us remember the possibilities we can create for ourselves and our potential audience if we just roll up our sleeves and let our imagination be a part of the process again.
Go see the play while you can, release the kraken and, as you should, release the smile you’re holding back.