Riddle of the Trilobites Review: A Prehistoric Puppet Musical about Climate Change and Puberty

Trilobites were actual crab-like creatures of the sea who lived on earth 150 million years before the first dinosaurs – and, like dinosaurs, are long extinct. But they remain as sturdy fossils for scientists to study….and theater artists to imagine.

“The Riddle of the Trilobites,” running at New Victory Theater through February 23, is being billed as a musical for kids about climate change. That may be the most marketable way of describing a show that is also about puppets and paleontology.and puberty.

Under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans, the show features a cast of six who use oversized hand puppets, wear colorful costumes, and sing a serviceable score of 13 songs, to tell the story of its heroine, Aphra (Safiso Mabena), an adolescent “trilo.” On “Molting Day,” Aphra’s shell reveals special markings that fulfill a prophecy drawn on the wall of her tribe’s grotto. Just such markings will be on the trilo who will solve the species’ ancient unsolved riddle:  “​When the ocean changes, the Trilobites cannot live but will not die.​”

Aphra goes on an epic journey to find the answer to the riddle,  with her pals Judomiah (Richard Saudek) and the five-eyed Calliope, an Opabinia (Sophia Aranda on the night I saw the show.) Along the way, they meet other sea creatures and have adventures and learn lessons about politics and science and life. And so does the audience, age six and older.

While there is no orange trilobite dismissing climate change as a hoax, there are more subtle references to twenty-first century politics. Aphra is told that volcanoes have destroyed other settlements, forcing trilobites to live in “refugee camps.” The elders of their community are not inviting in the refugees, even though the elders “have a code to embrace others,” because they’re scared.

Among the glancing science lessons are, yes, a plot that discusses the effects of climate change (with a relatively painless exposure to the idea of extinction), as well as a few lines about geology, and  an esoteric dive into paleontology,  Actual extinct sea species, made visually cute, populate the show – not just trilobites and opabinia, but Haikouichthys and Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia

(The fact that all these species are extinct but still exist as fossils is of course the key to the riddle that Alphra must solve.)

A lesson about growing up occurs early in the show, when Aphra is frightened about her first molting day. Her grandmother Galla (Julia Sirna-Frest) reassures her

Galla: Molting is nothing to be scared of. Your first molt will be a day of excitement and wonder.
Aphra: How will I know what to do?
Galla: You’ll know automatically.
Aphra: But all the other first-time molters will have their parents there to help them.
Galla: What am I – chopped plankton? I will be by your side the entire time

This is funny, and it’s also clever; it’s not a total stretch to see this as an indirect and inoffensive allusion to menstruation.

But there is a larger lesson about growing up in “Riddle of the Trilobites” — facing life as it is. After the adolescent trilobites visit an Opabinia scientist named Aunt Tonka and her Hallucigenia lab assistant Vanya, Vanya starts crying. “Those young little things going off into the wild sea, facing such enormous obstacles without even knowing how dangerous it is. And for what? Life is only work, and change, and predators and prey.”

“Well, what can we do?” Tonka replies. “We must live our lives. We must work – and laugh from time to time.”

Although “Riddle of the Trilobites” is a modest entertainment, without elaborate staging, sets or effects, “Riddle of the Trilobites” largely works; and from time to time, we do  laugh.

The Riddle of the Trilobites
Book by Geo Decas O’Donnell and Jordan Seavey
Lyrics by Geo Decas O’Donnell, Jordan Seavey and Nicholas Williams
Music, Orchestration and Arrangements by Nicholas Williams
Puppetry Concept by Amanda Villalobos
Puppet Direction by Pam Arciero
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Set Design & Elder Robes Design by Deb O
Costume Design by Katherine Nelson
Lighting Design by Eric Southern
Sound Design by Emma Wilk
Puppet Design & Fabrication by Amanda Villalobos
Cast: Sophia Aranda understudy, Tiffany Iris as Calliope and others, Sifiso Mabena as Aphra, Joel Oaramas as Elvin and others, Richard Saudek as Judomiah, Julia Sirna-Frest as Gall and others, Phillip Taratula as Hai and others.
Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets:$17 – $42
Riddle of the Trilobites is on stage through February 23, 2020.

Tickets and details


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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