The existential frivolity of Imago’s “ZooZoo”

With zen-like simplicity, the longtime mask-theater favorite rides a lighthearted line between kid stuff and edgier reflections of life.

There was one penguin in particular that I really wanted to win the game of musical chairs. This particular penguin was an aggressive tactician, and with belly-bumping brute force, it won the final round. But winning wasn’t enough. This penguin wanted another, better, comfier chair. By the time the defeated penguins had waddled into the wings of Imago Theatre, the winning penguin kicked a guy out of his front-row seat and flapped its flippers in victory.

The children in the audience were delighted.

Imago Theatre’s ZooZoo is a physical-theater/mask-and-puppet show that has toured internationally.  ZooZoo is a show for the humorous at heart. The kind of humor that smashes pretentiousness to pieces and replaces it with detached wonderment.

But if you’re imagining some kind of silly fluffy frivolity… well…. you’d be right to imagine that.

Animal magnetism: the masked creatures of Imago’s “ZooZoo” serve up glints of human nature. Photo: Imago Theatre

ZooZoo is a show recommended for audiences of 3 years and older. When I saw the show last week, it seemed more and more children were suddenly materializing in the audience throughout the show. 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.

A descendant of similar vignette collections such as the early Imago hit Frogz, Zoo Zoo consists mostly of tried-and-true material in a style the company has refined over decades. The current run is distinguished, though, by the debut of a new work, “The Magic Cloth.” Already enjoying a reputation for impressive stagecraft, Imago adds to its arsenal with this new illusion. Yet as satisfying as it was to see this big red cloth take on a life of its own and float or twist through the air, the illusion didn’t seem to impress the audience enough to really make a splash. Once the “magic” behind the magic cloth became even slightly visible, the cloth was still nice to look at, but that’s pretty much it. At this point parents picked up on their kids waning attention and tried to liven up the energy by whispering, “Isn’t that cool?”

It was cool, but not as engaging as, for example, a later piece about passive-aggressive hippopotami fighting over bed sheets.

Perhaps the secret to ZooZoo’s longevity is that it isn’t just for three year olds.

ZooZoo also brimmed with the existential and absurd, which was a byproduct of the zen-like simplicity of each piece. An enormous grocery bag with an enormous cat inside, bouncing around the stage, for example. This most likely was, to many young ones, a common funny occurrence on their kitchen floors. But, with a certain innocence long gone, I couldn’t help but identify with the cat’s futile struggle to break free and escape. I was projecting my weariness with adulthood on the trapped cat when I was brought down to earth by a kid sitting behind me. He bluntly reminded me, “Hey, that’s funny,”.

For all its lightheartedness, ZooZoo was also decidedly creepy. Sinister carnival music, giant snakes that swam through the air, and people in polar bear costumes that climbed over audience members, sniffing them. These things kept me on edge and never let me slip into a PBS-esque fantasy of complete safety.

A few things stood out as fantastic: the masterful masks and the detailed physicality with which each performer brought their animal to life. The tap-dancing anteaters were talented. The frogs, in particular, leaped to life with grace, and their heads ticked recognizably to the left or right. The giant accordions flopping on one another were strange, but not boring because the choreography was fully realized.

If you happen to know or be near any three-year-olds, grab them (lawfully) and bring them to this show.


About the author

Chris Gonzalez is a theater maker, musician, poet, and educator based in Portland, Oregon. He works with Portland Literary Arts as a teaching artist, and has just completed a year residency at The School of Dance and Contemporary Thought, where he taught physical theater. Chris was a recipient of the James Baldwin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Playwriting from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he studied theater and performance. Chris also has been a featured poet for the past 5 years, performing alongside International Slam Champions Saul Williams and Shane Koyczan. Chris’s first book of poetry, water or bread, has just been published by Human Error Press.

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