Farewell, my lovely: ZooZoo’s splendid final stand

Imago's sublime dancing and miming critters are in the midst of their final run in Portland. Catch them before they disappear

Good night fireflies, blinking your eyes.

Good night anteaters, goodnight bears, 

Good night penguins sitting in chairs, 

Good night windbags, wheezing away, 

Good night frogs, good night cats, (one in a bag)

Good night hippos, having spats,

Good night larva, upside down,

Good night paper, crumpled on the ground,

Which, with a halfhearted apology to Margaret Wise Brown, is all by way of saying that ZooZoo, Imago’s “animal show,” as my grandson calls it, will be put to bed for good in 2016.  If you live in Portland, you’d best make haste to see it. The show goes on tour after the current run at Imago’s East Side Portland home theater closes on January 3, and the company’s masked theatre productions, after that, will not be seen again, anywhere.

Polar bears ...

Polar bears …

ZooZoo has been hitting the road under several titles, and with a number of interchangeable casts of the critters and objects listed above, since it started with a single frog in 1979, conceived and fabricated in a student apartment in Eugene by Imago founders and directors Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle. I’ve been writing about it (and other Imago masked theatre productions) for the past thirty-plus years, for a number of national and local publications.  Last year I covered it extensively for this one, only it was called Frogz a separate but intimately linked show, which contained many of the characters above as well as sloths, alligators, string and the like.

I took my grandchildren – a seven-year-old boy, who has now seen it three times, and a three-year-old girl, who was watching it for the first time – to ZooZoo‘s noon matinee on Saturday.  I wondered, since their parents had other things to do, how I would manage to watch the show, take notes on what I was seeing, and keep an eye on the kids, all at once. I needn’t have worried. From the moment the show began, with a little preview of La Belle, a multi-media, multi-layered extravaganza that will open in December of next year, the kids were transfixed by the transformations taking place on stage.

Quiet, not so much. But neither were the other kids (a lot of them) in the audience, who were giggling and gurgling at the “Bugeyes” of the opening number, cheering when they magically capture their captor in a jar.  Nothing about ZooZoo is overtly didactic, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many lessons to be learned. In this part? Small creatures, working together, can overcome a big one who’s picking on them. Me, I visualized a certain bombastic, bullying candidate for president trapped in that jar.

hippos ...

hippos …

Then came the hippos, two of them, in and out of a double bed, pulling and tugging, flouncing and floundering, with a blanket. Some people think this is about insomnia, I think it’s about marriage, and the grandkids were clearly reminded of their tussles with each other when forced, last summer, to share a bed at the beach.

“That’s an anteater!” my granddaughter said in a delighted whisper when, with Jeff Forbes’ magnificent lights and resident composer Katie Griesar’s spectacular score, a seamless transition (all of them are) was made to the next segment. Clad in red trousers, the anteater took his seat at a café table. Eventually, after much impatient movement from the hungry anteater, a second, dressed as a waiter, emerged from the wings and proceeded to demonstrate the level of his incompetence with a tray of glasses, one of which he dropped. The relationship of customer and server is antagonistic, to say the least: no “My name is Godot and I’ll be your server tonight, what’s your name, let’s shake hands,” here.

The brace of anteaters, after much flipping of tails (the tails are fantastic) gets into a competitive snuffling-up of unseen ants from the floor.  They look around for more, and then go into the audience, where one of them “discovers” an ant on my granddaughter’s nose.  This scared her a little bit, but only a little.

anteaters ...

anteaters …

An animated paper bag follows — most cat-servants (I won’t call us owners), Mouawad and Triffle included, are familiar with the cat-in-the-grocery-bag-in-the- middle of-the-kitchen-floor game – and after much bouncing, upending, and flattening, a paw and striped tail appear as the dance concludes.  Let it be said before I go any further, every segment of ZooZoo constitutes a dance, no mean trick for the performers, whose masks limit their vision, and obviate communication by facial expression.  They are all of them very, very good at this; more about them later.

A trio of incredibly pompous yet balletic frogs arrives on stage. They do a little pas de grenouille, in which they show off their technique with a number of pas de bourrées, and even a leg in attitude.  Two exit, leaving one center stage to execute not a solo but a loudly buzzing fly, with a swatter that Monsieur Grenouille transforms into a spatula and uses to flip the fly into his mouth. His subsequent belch sends every small boy in the theater into gales of giggles.

Possibly the polar bears, lumbering on stage to bouncy music, are a little out of date.  Their mise en scène looks icy, indeed, and I couldn’t help wondering how Mouawad and Triffle might change this to reflect global warming. Nevertheless, they do a very pretty little dance, with a heavy awww factor: they’re cute, but not cloyingly so, as they snuggle against each other for the long winter’s night, concluding the first act and releasing some restless kids and stiff-jointed grandparents into the lobby for intermission.

During which I bought the kids little furry hand puppets, which, back in the hall, they set in the cup holders, it was explained to me, so they too could watch the three striped cats (one gray, one black, one orange) who started the second act, waking up, stretching, grooming each other in uncannily catlike fashion, doing indeed a couple of pas de chats as well as what could be described as flash dancing.  These were very cool cats, indeed, who got extremely energized by some exceedingly realistic barking noises.

Everyone loves the tour de force of the insouciant larva’s acrobatic movements, and  I think this deceptive character has been cast in every iteration of this show. I confess I’ve grown weary of this creature that doesn’t seem to know its nether parts from a hole in the ground, as impressive as the solo and the construction of mask and costume are.

For real elegance, look to the next act, called Windbags, the windbags of the title being accordions in several sizes, their schtick literally kicked off by a performer in a crimson body suit that covers him from head to toe, face included.  Martial arts infuse his brief dance, and then two accordions do quite a seductive, if breathy, duet that made me think of the audible breathing that was a trend in contemporary dance a number of years ago.  As for the kids?  They love animated objects, and these were certainly that.

“That’s hilarious,” I heard the seven-year-old say, when the penguins, who are the show’s penultimate act, were engaged in their clueless game of musical chairs.  My grandson has seen this bit twice before, and still finds it killingly funny. On Saturday, the “lead” penguin, if you will, the one who comes into the audience and ejects someone from his seat and takes his place, made this the best of  many, many performances I’ve seen of it over the years.

oh, my! (and penguins, too.) Photos: Imago Theatre

oh, my! (and penguins, too.) Photos: Imago Theatre

Pratik Motwani, who hails from Mumbai, India, and is highly trained in physical and masked theatre, had the audience in hysterics as the penguin barred from returning to the stage when the curtain comes down while he is tussling with a ticketholder for his seat. Standing in front of the closed curtain, he covered his chest with his wings, twisted his body in a humiliated squirm, realized his invisible nether parts were exposed, and slapped his wings over them. It’s a schtick, all right, but it’s also a brilliantly executed, wordless study of how naked a performer can feel on stage, how humiliating for everyone the unexpected can be.  Motwani also plays one of the hippos and one of the cats, each presenting very different challenges.

The finale unmasks the performers, as,  jumping and diving under massive amounts of crumpled paper, waving their legs like sea anemones, they all four shed their wine-red body suits for what look like union suits spattered with bluegreen dye.  Jonathan Godsey, Motwani, Kacian Jade Kitko, and Mark Mullaney, all of them skilled and nuanced artists – boy, are they ever – take their bows, ankle-deep in crumpled paper.

Don’t miss them. Multi-layered family entertainment of this kind is rare. Although we can look forward with considerable eagerness to La Belle next December (both grands asked if they could go!) it will not be the same.


Imago’s ZooZoo continues through January 3. Ticket and schedule information here.

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