A tragicomic operetta in three acts, which tells the tragic tale of a CHILD who finds love with a dime-store turtle, MR. RED EARS, only to have the sweet flower of selfless devotion crushed under the heel of mortality, dashing illusions to glittering shards and forever altering the worldview of our protagonist.
The CHILD, playing in the sunny afternoon, sings an aria of innocence and love, yearning for life, and so forth, entitled ” A Lizard in the Sun”. The time frame, early 1970’s, is set with pop culture references within the libretto.
As he finishes, enter MOM and DAD, with a Mysterious Box..
]]>MOM and DAD sing a duet in which themes from the CHILD’s aria are echoed and inverted, with darkenings and intimations of the richer life experience that awaits, “We Love our Little Egg”.
Then, as they finish, and as their song turns to themes of the meaning of love and the point of life, they turn, and portentously bestow the Mysterious Box on the CHILD, who rejoices and rushes to the arms of his loving parents as the curtain falls.
A few minutes later. We are within the Mysterious Box, which is darkened. A slow, stately theme introduces the scene. As the lights come up, MR. RED EARS bestirs his turtly self and sings a turgid, yet moving melody, entitled “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”, which is a reflection upon the interconnectedness of life and his kinship to the majestic Sea Turtles, who may live for hundreds upon hundreds of years in the open oceans. MR. RED EARS projects his aspirations for life and freedom onto these nearly immortal creatures much as the CHILD projects upon MOM and DAD. The theme of immorality, freedom, and the promise of life is foreshadowing, naturally.
As MR. RED EARS concludes his song, the lights come up on the right of the stage, where we can see that the CHILD is opening his Mysterious Box. Stagecraft allows us to recognize that the Mysterious Box contains MR. RED EARS.
MR. RED EARS and the CHILD then sing a duet of first encounters and of childlike exploration, “Box Turtle, Snapping Turtle, Mock Turtle” in which each recognizes the child in the other and which concludes in a heartbreakingly hopeful finale emphasizing the bright promise of childhood friendship.
A third song, a largely comic number entitled “Won’t You Come Out of Your Shell Today”, expostulates the deepening turtle-toddler bond and relates the long history of the human-turtle relationship, of their long walk together from the caves of prehistory to the arc-lights of modernity. It concludes as MOM and DAD call the CHILD away for dinner, and MR. RED EARS ends the song again alone on stage, in a frisson of foreboding and loneliness, now aware of his hunger for love and need for companionship.
The CHILD enters and engages MR. RED EARS with a jolly tune that begins with echoes of the themes brightly voiced in “Shell”, yet MR. RED EARS is sluggish, and evinces a growing suspicion of the CHILD’s motives and expresses jealousy of the time the CHILD spends with MOM and DAD in a darker number titled “Shell Game”. In hurt, confused, possibly falling prey to turtle tuberculosis, MR. RED EARS nips the CHILD who flees in confusion, pain, and worry. MR. RED EARS falls to the floor of his plastic aquarium in a faint beneath the plastic palm tree. as the music expresses fantastic romantic anguish.
The CHILD returns in the company of MOM and DAD who protectively prevent the CHILD from approaching the dying reptile, and sing a biting number in which they assign various parental failings upon the tragic shelled creature to the CHILD’s increasing discomfort while at the same time professing deep care and compassion for the turtle. They recognize their helplessness and falsity and lie out right to the CHILD, in the end exiting stage right ‘to fetch the veterinarian’.
The CHILD takes faltering steps toward the mortally-stricken pet, and the beast sings a heartrending farewell in which he hallucinates a return to the open ocean and a final joining with the Sea Turtles, dying, at last, in the arms of the sobbing CHILD. A silence permeates the stage and audience; The child then rises and swears eternal cynicism and enmity to life, God, and the future, expressing his shattering disillusionment and enunciating as his new religious and spiritual practice absolute nihilism unto the end of his days. The libretto here strips the mask and directly condemns the audience, in an apparent attempt (ill-advised, most critics agree) to alienate the audience from the production.
In later productions, this closing number is frequently replaced with a song in which the Sea Turtles actually DO come and waft the body of the dead MR RED EARS away in a cloud of beshelled puttis as the CHILD waves a teary-eyed, smiling farewell.