DramaWatch: the magic (cloth) of the season

Imago and Michael Curry add bonus content to "ZooZoo." Plus: Tobias Andersen vamps, "Mary Poppins" flies again, and Christmas keeps coming.

Imago Theatre has built much of its reputation on an evolving series of family-friendly mask-theater shows such as the ever-popular ZooZoo, which it brings back for another holiday run through Jan. 6. But after decades presenting that show, its much-lauded predecessor Frogz, and the closely related Biglittlethings, Imago co-founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle don’t do much with them anymore.

“We don’t really work those shows,” Mouawad says. “We have video to refer to, and a bunch of really seasoned performers who’ve been touring the material, so they put the show back together, get it on its feet, and then Carol and I will just come in and fine tune things.”

That approach seems to work, as the ingeniously anthropomorphized animals and other creatures of ZooZoo continue to brim with recognizable life and relatable humor. But it’s not as if Mouawad and Triffle are sitting around resting on their fluffy, fabricated, polar-bear-sized laurels.

“The Magic Cloth,” shown with “ZooZoo” at Imago Theatre. Photo: courtesy of Imago Theatre.

This run of ZooZoo will include a special bonus feature — “The Magic Cloth,” a new Imago vignette created in collaboration with the master production designer Michael Curry, a Portlander famed for his puppetry, costuming and other work for Broadway’s The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil and others.

“It’s very simple,” Mouawad says of the new piece, taking a brief break from tech rehearsals. “A boy and his sister are out playing with their dog. They discover a small black box, and out of it comes a red cloth about six-feet square. It moves magically and it’s mysterious and makes them laugh. It’s clown theater with stage-magic puppetry.”

Simple, of course, is hard to do well. Perhaps that’s especially true for theater predicated largely on design and movement, such as “The Magic Cloth” and the various other mask and costume vignettes in ZooZoo. “This six-minute piece is as much work as any of my other plays, maybe more,” Mouawad says.

In fact, “The Magic Cloth” has been years in the weaving, so to speak.

It’s origins are in Curry’s ambitious 2001 multimedia show Spirits, which Mouawad recalls seeing at the Keller Auditorium. In one of that show’s pieces, BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland danced along with a large cloth that “seemed to move and glide through the stage without any mechanism or strings or method I could detect. I had been studying illusions and creating them for decades but this one really surprised and mystified me.”

Years later, Mouawad met Curry and asked him about the cloth. “He was really generous. He told me how it worked and took me all around his studio and showed me all the things needed to make it work.”

With Curry’s blessing, Imago set out  to create its own story utilizing the effect. “We workshopped it three or four years ago and it never made it to the stage,” Mouawad says. Having returned to the concept more fruitfully, Mouawad says it might be developed further, perhaps as the basis for a stand-alone theatrical show, or even as part of a children’s television program that would also incorporate the playful “creatures” of ZooZoo. He sounds excited.

“It’s a very simple effect, done very simply. Yet if I turned all the lights on (while showing it) you’d still be somewhat amazed.”

Vamping on a theme

Tobias Andersen is one of the most respected and well-liked of Portland-area theater artists, with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. Run into him in the past few months and that enthusiasm likely has been spilling out about the play he’s directing at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, Vampire Tapestry.

For all the respect I have for Andersen’s taste and skills, I’ve listened to that enthusiasm with a bit of a sinking feeling: “A vampire story? Oh, dear lord.” No doubt I’m in the minority on this, but for me the mention of anything to do with vampires, zombies, werewolves or the like triggers a big, flashing “Do Not Care” sign in my mind. However trenchant the allegory or skillful the storytelling, my general distaste for horror and the supernatural wins out.

But then again, I recall, there’s Conor McPherson’s play St. Nicholas, in which vampires play a crucial role. That’s a terrific work — not just insightful but haunting, even a little frightening, in a very human way. So…my apologies to vampire fiction as a genre.

Vampire Tapestry is Andersen’s own adaptation of a book by the same title by Suzy McKee Charnas, which the site FantasyLiterature.com has praised as a “meditation on the mind of a ….non-romanticized, non-demonized predator.” Charnas’ book is a set of five linked novellas, of which one called Unicorn Tapestry won the prestigious Nebula Award when it was published separately in 1981. Charnas wrote her own stage adaptation, Vampire Dreams, which premiered in 1999 (and which Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. lists as a comedy), and as with the Andersen version, it focuses on the Unicorn Tapestry story line, involving a psychotherapist treating a college professor. As described by producer Michael Streeter,  “It’s about the relationship between a psychotherapist and her patient as she struggles to determine the root cause of his delusion that he is a vampire.”

Adds Andersen: “The audience has the opportunity, right along with the psychiatrist, to come to the conclusion that he is, or is not, a vampire.

“Or… it’s about a vampire (maybe) undergoing psychoanalysis with a lady psychiatrist who might have a few more problems than he does.  And whatever he may be, she’s attracted to him. And If we get down to the bottom of it, we might also say it’s about being alone in an increasingly difficult world.”

Nanny state

Northwest Children’s Theatre’s crowd-pleasing “Mary Poppins” was an awards-winner in 2014. Photo: Northwest Children’s Theater

Four years ago, Northwest Children’s Theatre staged the enduringly charming musical Mary Poppins, sold out all its performances and earned armloads of honors at the Drammys and the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards. Chrissy Kelly-Pettit flies back into the title role for another twirl of her magic umbrella.

Christmas is coming! Help! HELP!!

Having dedicated an entire ArtsWatch column to the season’s slate of Christmas-themed shows a week or two ago, I’d sincerely hoped to have those presentations wrapped up, pardon the pun. But you might say Santa has a knack for staying in the news cycle. So here’s a few more events we’d missed:

Lakewood Theatre hosts a couple of shows. For especially little ones (age three and older), there’s The Peppermint Bear Show: Who Needs Sneeds, something to do with a bear and elves up against some ill-intentioned brothers with a Grinch-like plan to steal Christmas. And then there’s the apparently continually improving The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which Lakewood is producing for the 22nd time! About a family of miscreants entering the town holiday pageant, it’s directed this year by Michael DeMaio.

Portland Revels, however, might laughing at that paltry 22-year track record, having presented its annual Christmas Revels show for 24 years. This year’s version is called Highland Voyage, a Scottish Celebration of the Winter Solstice, including plenty of Revels traditions (mummers and such), as well as pipers, puppets and poets.

John Longenbaugh is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, but much more to his credit he’s a veteran theater critic for the Seattle Weekly and other publications and better still he’s the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol, which Artists Rep produced several years ago. More to the point here, he’s co-founder of Battleground Productions, which presents a one-night staged reading of his new play The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery. Expect comedy, romance, intrigue…and holiday references.

A cozy “Carol”: Portland Playhouse has filled houses and warmed hearts for the past five winters with its production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Reina Solunaya.

Our earlier holiday roundup included Portland Playhouse’s popularly straightforward production of A Christmas Carol, but neglected to note the heartening news that the fine Seattle actor Charles Leggett, last seen here down south in Portland Center Stage’s Major Barbara, is taking over the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Closing

The majority of Portland-area actors are about to get a winter break — or at least it seems that way because the courtroom drama Inherit the Wind at Lakewood is about to adjourn, and that cast is huge.

Also flashing to a close are the short-run shows King of the Yees at the Portland Chinatown Museum, and The Hullabaloo Robin Hood.

Best line I read this week

“Stage directions for Baker’s The Aliens…specify that a ‘pause’ is at least three seconds, while a ‘silence’ should be between five and 10. Maybe Baker shows don’t need directors so much as referees.”

— Chris Klimek for the Washington City Paper, reviewing Annie Baker’s John.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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