Oregon Cultural Trust

DramaWatch: Going to the ZooZoo

Imago's magical menagerie of costumed critters returns to the stage. Plus Dickens and C.S. Lewis and even Neil Simon.


What’s on the theatrical menu: An anteater waiter? At “ZooZoo,” yes. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre.

You want tradition? OK, it’s not as old as Santa, or Tiny Tim and Scrooge, or that fruitcake sitting in the pantry that you’re afraid to unwrap. But ZooZoo, the sparkling critter fantasy reopening this week at Imago Theatre, has roots.

A mask-and-puppet frivolity featuring acrobatic frogs, penguins, polar bears, topsy-turvy paper bags, and a menagerie of other sly and happy imaginings, it’s an amalgam of physical-comedy skits that began with Frogz, the intimate costume spectacular that hit the stage when Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded Imago in 1979, continued with Frogz‘ close cousin Biglittlethings, and finally morphed into ZooZoo, a show that like its predecessors has toured internationally but always comes back to its hometown crowd.

And if ever a show was for kids of all ages, this one’s it. As Christopher Gonzalez wrote in his 2018 ArtsWatch review The existential frivolity of Imago’s “ZooZoo,” it’s “a show for the humorous at heart. The kind of humor that smashes pretentiousness to pieces and replaces it with detached wonderment.”

Maybe especially, he added, for the young of age as well as heart: “Really what was happening was they collectively realized that it was appropriate to, for example, bark at the animals onstage. In most cases, the animals barked back. Naturally more kids caught on and participated with quips or vocalized questions. All promises made to parents in the lobby to ‘be a good audience member’ went out the window. The result was a joyous demolition of the fourth wall.”

Veteran Imago performer Danielle Vermette, in full polar bear mode on tour. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette.

In her 2019 ArtsWatch piece ZooZoo, straight from the polar bear’s mouth, writer and veteran Imago performer Danielle Vermette talked about the magic of touring with ZooZoo and inhabiting some of its characters. “The lifelike costumes and funny antics of the characters entertain and surprise while also managing to touch some tender places,” she writes. “The vignettes, perched somewhere between hilarity and agony – the territory of all great comedy – illustrate our foibles and insecurities wordlessly, through the easy distance of an anthropomorphic lens. 

“Somehow, it’s wildly entertaining to watch a penguin fail or a concertina collapse in terror only to bolster itself up and face the source of that terror. It’s delicious to watch a married couple suffer, at least when they’re hippopotamusus who can’t get a decent night’s sleep.  Watching a frog that’s frightened to leap?  Well, can’t we all relate to that one? In fact, of the five most important lessons I learned from touring with Imago’s family shows, the first and most valuable is that pain is often hilarious.”

That’s the core of comedy. And through New Year’s Day at Imago, it’s here. 


All Classical Radio James Depreist


Did somebody mention Dickens? An old tale turns up on a new stage this weekend when Readers Theatre Repertory presents David Berkson’s word-for-word stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol in the new home of Blackfish Gallery, which has just reopened at its new space, 938 N.W. Everett St., in the Pearl District. Readers Theatre Rep (which, as its name implies, does staged readings) and Blackfish have a long history together, and are now moving on to … let’s call it a new stage. In a feat of ghostly bravura, Berkson, Chris Porter, and Megan Skye Hale will perform all the roles. Two performances only; Friday and Saturday, Dec. 9-10.


Christmas with C.S. Lewis, a touring portrayal of the celebrated author of the Narnia stories, longtime friend of fellow fabulist J.R.R. Tolkien, and atheist-turned-Christian, stops in at the Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts for shows Dec. 15-18.


PassinArt: A Theatre Company, fresh off an all-too-brief run of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, is tackling a very different sort of American classic with the latest show in its Play Reading Mondays series: the Neil Simon comedy God’s Favorite. Monday, Dec. 12, at the June Key Delta Community Center, 5940 N. Albina, Portland.


The Peppermint Bear goes back in Portland lore to a time even before tattoos and flannel shirts (with the exception of sailors and loggers), and the newest Peppermint Bear show, The Taming of the Shoe, opens for a run of daytime kids’ shows Dec. 10-22 on the Side Door Stage of Lakewood Theatre in Lake Oswego: Seems a renegade elf named Percy Ulysses Featherby has been reduced to being a shoe salesman, and is gumming up the toy supply. Meanwhile, holding forth daytimes Dec. 10 and 17 on the mainstage is the kids’ show Elf The Musical Jr., in an hour-long condensed version.


All Classical Radio James Depreist


Kristina Wong stars in “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” a co-production between Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Portland Center Stage continues a pair of well-received shows. On PCS’s Mainstage at The Armory, the enthusiastically received It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues through Dec. 24.

And in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio, Kristina Wong’s solo show Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord continues through Dec. 18. It’s sharp-elbowed comedy about the pandemic and Wong’s efforts to organize a group of Chinese American “aunties” to sew anti-Covid masks to distribute while the federal government delayed. ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley wrote that Wong “comes across not so much as a sweatshop overlord as a humanitarian commando, stalking the stage, sometimes crawling on her belly to illustrate a point, replicating the sense of urgency and whatever-it-takes spirit that powered her through a period of confusion and scarce resources. … [I]t is a story of survival and, arguably, of success, and as such, it’s heartwarming, even inspiring – especially in how clearly it evokes the loving camaraderie that develops among the “Aunties,” Wong’s ‘warriors behind sewing machines.’”


Portland Playhouse’s highly popular musical version of A Christmas Carol, which has become an annual must-see for many people, continues through Dec. 30.

Broadway Rose’s light-hearted musical revue A Very Merry PDX-mas continues through Dec. 22.

The wit of American humorist Erma Bombeck, as performed by Helen Raptis, continues in the solo show At Wit’s End through Dec. 17 at Triangle Productions.

Blythe Woodland cuts a rug with Santa in Broadway Rose’s “A Very Merry PDX-mas.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

At CoHo Theatre, Oregon playwright Lindsay Partain’s The Way You Made Me, about a woman who “shares her gift of words with an unseen lover,” continues through Dec. 18. (Also, you’re invited to come in slippers and pajamas or whatever makes you comfortable.)


All Classical Radio James Depreist

John Patrick Shanley’s breakthrough hit Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues through Dec. 18 at Bag&Baggage Productions in Hillsboro.

Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s queer-sensibility version of Thornton Wilder’s American classic Our Town continues through Dec. 24; read Max Tapogna’s ArtsWatch story here.

And Hannah Kahlil’s futuristic play about virtual reality, Metaverse, continues thorough Dec. 18 at Corrib: Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch profile of the show’s director, Holly Griffith, who is Corrib’s new artistic director.


Anonymous Theatre Company‘s mostly annual events have become must-sees for a lot of Portland area theater fans, and a lot of theatermakers as well. The twist is this: Except for the name of the show, nobody knows who’s performing in it – not even the performers themselves, who know they’re in the cast, but don’t know who their fellow actors are until they meet them on the stage. This requires an extraordinary amount of trickery in the rehearsal process, too, because essentially, everyone’s rehearsing alone. The result, in a single performance, can be a triumph of adaptation and thinking quickly on your feet.

The newest Anonymous show, Fezziwig’s Fortune, is also the first original play the company has produced: Its performance Monday, Dec. 19, will be the premiere of Portland plawrights Josie Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi’s newest work. It’ll also be Anonymous’s first venture onto the stage of the new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, in Beaverton.


A Radio Christmas Carol, from the venerable Willamette Radio Workshop, returns to live stages after a three-year absence with all the fun of radio-studio bells and whistles, including live foley effects. Directed by Sam A. Mowry from an adaptation by Cynthia McGean, it features a polished cast of radio-theater regulars and music by – what’s this? – the Holly Jolly Radio Singers. Performances Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Victorian Belle Mansion in North Portland, and Wednesday, Dec. 21, at the Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver, Wash.


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After a pandemic absence, the popular family tradition that is Portland Revels returns to the stage Dec. 16-18 with a show called Midwinter Revels: Andalusian Night – A Celebration of the Solstice. Set in 14th century Andalusia, Spain, it’ll feature among others the Spanish and Moroccan musicians of Seffarine, the Portland Brass Quintet, and flamenco dancer Laura Onizuka. Dec. 16-18 at the Newmark Theatre, with a children’s show Dec. 29-30.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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