Frogz at 35: the mime still boggles

Imago shows off its brilliant menagerie for the hometown crowd before hitting the road again. Next stop: France.

Art Without Boundaries is  the title of an internationally focused history of modern dance by former New York Times dance critic and poet Jack Anderson, and it’s also an excellent description of the long-lived variety show of the imagination Frogz, now in the middle of its home season at Imago Theatre.

Sloth on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

Sloths on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

The masked theater piece, which is one of the city’s prime performance attractions during winter break, has been crossing all kinds of boundaries – formal, geographical, generational, and cultural – since Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle, Imago’s founders, started it with a single frog 35 years ago.

Today, the cast of characters includes two more frogs, alligators, orbs, a baby, penguins, sloths, paper bags, string, and a cowboy, performed by a troupe of five quick-change artists, with very different training, who are willing to travel the world. Never cute, and never patronizing, Frogz can be hilarious or poignant, satirical or sad, whimsical, or magical. It is family entertainment, to be sure, but with a highly sophisticated edge.

The frog that started it all was born  in 1979, in an untidy two bedroom apartment in Eugene, where Triffle (then Uselman) and Mouawad, who was studying theater at the University of Oregon,  were living together.  “One of the rooms was full of making things,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December.  “We were in our twenties, a lot of stuff came from there, and we eventually had to get a studio.”

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The couple had met two years before in Portland, in a ballet class being taught by the late Danny Diamond. Diamond’s studio was in the same building as the Richard Hayes Marshall School of Theater Arts, where Marshall taught the methods of Parisian mime Jacques Lecoq. Mouawad was also studying with Marshall, and Triffle, who spent her adolescence in Mt. Angel, getting attention by making her many siblings laugh in the family kitchen, soon got hooked on the Frenchman’s approach to wordless comedy.

Lecoq seldom performed, but was well-known as a great teacher and director. He had invented a system (he was French, after all) that included a number of methods of creating and expressing character without dialogue, using physical improvisation and other movement techniques as well as masks to convey “what lies behind the words.” Actors such as Geoffrey Rush studied with him, but so did architects and psychoanalysts. In the Eighties, Triffle began extensive studies at his school in Paris, assisting him, and following Lecoq’s death in 1999, assisting his son. She is now a certified teacher of the Lecoq methodology.

Juggling fish: doesn't everyone?

Juggling fish: doesn’t everyone?

Mouawad fell in love with theater when he acted in a seventh grade play at the American School in Beirut, hence the drama studies at the U of O. But once he became acquainted with Lecoq’s approach to theater, it made a lot more sense to him than the conventional techniques he was learning there.   He remembered being asked, as a twenty-year-old, to develop the character of a man twice his age, with twice his experience in the world. “That was confusing,” he said. “The world is too complex for a twenty-year old.” What drew him to masked theater and the Lecoq methods was the distillation of the simplest element provided by the mask, and the limited options of how to portray something or someone he was not: a slinky, a polar bear, a baby.

Nevertheless, Frogz in its current, complex incarnation is far from simple to perform. It requires physicality, strength, endurance, visibility, and  something Triffle says you are born with if you have it: comic timing.  “[That] is crucial,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December at Imago Theatre.  “Everything else can be taught.” Rehearsals were about to begin for the current run, and Triffle and cast members Kyle Delamarter and Kaician Jade Kitko were also present for a free-wheeling interview in which laughter overrides the recording of much of what was said. Frogz spends most of its time on tour, circumnavigating the globe, giving 150 performances a year, most recently in this country.

Delamarter seems to have passed his 2002 audition because of what Mouawad called “crazy behavior” before he even went up on stage, where he was challenged to “not be funny.” He was an animator at the time, and was taken into the company to perform in Biglittlethings, one of three incarnations of what my grandson calls the “animal show,”  (ZooZoo was the third). Delamarter has performed in all three, as well as in such experimental works as Backs Like That, Splat and Beaux Arts Club.  The family shows provide the bread and butter that sustain the more (much more) experimental pieces.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Delamarter has spent twelve years touring with the show in all its permutations, and what he had to say about audience reaction confirms the observations of cultural anthropologists that body language, as much as other forms of social behavior including spoken language, reveals cultural differences, even in different parts of the United States.  Frogz had a six-week run in Boston some years ago at the American Repertory Theater, before Mouawad’s unsettling version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was performed there. When it came time for the audience participation in the penguins’ game of musical chairs, in which the birds go into the audience, “no one would give us a seat,” Delamarter recalled. This was not as frustrating, however, as a recent performance in Amman, Jordan, where despite being shown a presenter-created video of how to behave in the theater that included instructions about turning off cell phones, the kids (and the adults) ruined the black-light finale by taking pictures with their devices, using the flash, and also tried to see how it all worked by shining their flashlights.

On the whole, “the show translates well because there is no [spoken] language,” Delamarter said. Wherever it’s performed,  “they like it as much as families do anywhere. We did another show for immigrants, and there was no problem.” Kayla Scrivner, production stage manager, who traveled to Egypt and Jordan with Frogz on its previous tour to the region, points out that the less affluent audiences are better behaved: in Egypt, the company did a show for kids who had no cell phones, and the kids were completely attentive to the goings-on.

Some baby!

Some baby!

In this country, audience response often has something to do with the venue and the size of the city.  In small towns, audiences tend to be more receptive because they don’t see much live theater.  When the company recently performed in Crockett, Texas, Delamarter reported, it was greeted by a wall of sound that resembled the welcome the Beatles used to get more than forty years ago. This reminded Mouawad of being in Asia in the Eighties, performing in the Orb mask, and having sixty kids attack him when he came offstage. Onstage, he “could communicate with a theater of 2000 people in Taipei, but I couldn’t ask any of them to get me a cup of coffee.” Or stop attacking him. No matter where they perform, they “carry the masks,” as Lecoq put it, so well and so convincingly that children in particular think inanimate objects like orbs and string are alive; that fighting, cheating penguins are real; that lizards very scary; and polar bears are never to be attacked.

Kitko, a tap dancer by training, joined Imago in 2010 to perform in Stage Left Lost. The first challenge to “carrying the mask,” he says, is the way it limits your vision. “You can’t see what you would like to be able to see, but you get used to it quickly. You have to know that the performers are going to be where you want them to be at the right times; trust them to be out of your way.” A number of tricks help with this: stage floors are marked, so when an Orb, say, is looking down, it knows where it is; and there are sound cues that are inaudible to the viewers.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

In general terms, says Mouawad, to “carry the mask means to perform it. You don’t manipulate it, you don’t have complete power; in some ways you’re collaborating [with it]. The sightlines can make you feel completely isolated from the world around you, but you’re still communicating through the mask.”

Kitko, Delamarter, Jonathan Godsey, Pratik Motwani and Tera Nova Zarra (the only woman in the cast) will be working their masked magic at Imago Theatre through January 4.  Their next stop is France, home of Lecoq technique. Catch them while you can: they won’t return for another year.


Twenty performances of Frogz remain. Check here for times, prices, and reservations.

Wonderheads makes its local name with “Grim and Fischer”

The mask and physical theater troupe that already wins awards abroad, finally reaches its home base.

Elderly Mrs. Fischer is trying to stay ahead of the law—well, to put it more precisely, the laws of nature. Her number is up. Her time has come. Her ticker is twitching. And Death, in the person of the gray-faced Mr. Grim, is trying to serve her papers. “Grim & Fischer,” then, is the story of an old woman literally dancing with death. Sounds pretty maudlin, huh? And maybe even…mundane? Well, no, actually; it’s thoroughly captivating—and despite its inevitable conclusion, full of little surprises along the way. With layers of laughter, suspense, and sympathy, Wonderheads manages to lighten the topic without trivializing it. The audience roots for Wonderheads’ little old lady with the kind of fervor normally reserved for a favorite sports team.


In this kind of show, wordless and winsome, it’s easy to forget how much technical acumen is at play. Kate Braidwood and Andrew Pheonix both hold MFA’s in Ensemble-Based Physical Theater from Dell’Arte International, a credential they acknowledge as “most curious.” Indeed, the venerated and ancient form of mime holds a narrow niche, complete with its own performance lexicon (for instance, performances aren’t “written” or “directed,” they’re “devised.”) They’re also the show’s mask-makers, melding cartoonish character heads with the minimalist “larval” style popular in European mime training. What’s more, this particular show incorporates no fewer than 150 sound cues (managed by Emily Windler), running the gambit from fart noises to Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2.

Wonderheads’ mask craft is superb, and it has to be. Since each character wears a fixed expression, a given face must be finely calibrated to be “read” multiple ways. Cartoons tend to emote a bit one-note; this is where the “larval” influence may be their ace. Grim, for instance, has a down-drawn mouth that can seem angry or confused—but in its nobler moments, it melts into a sophisticated somberness befitting a distinguished gentleman. His eyebrows, arched not glowering, can look forceful, imperious, or just plain surprised. Mrs. Fischer’s mouth is twisted in a perma-sneer-smile which—amazingly—can look stubborn, wry, sly or sweet. Two more highly-interpreble mugs make an appearance over the course of the show: that of a male nurse (progressive!) and a giddy little gap-toothed girl (irresistible!). The fact that the Wonderheads’ duo can be credited with this perfect preparatory handiwork, brings their presentation to a whole new level.

“I’m almost certain you haven’t heard of us,” remarked Braidwood in her invitation, explaining that the company has been touring nonstop since its inception in 2009, racking up accolades and Best of Fest awards in Ohio, Florida, and Canada, but doing very little to promote in their hometown. This sudden challenge to local art-heads’ knowledge raised interest and stakes, unleashing a slew of “Grim & Fischer” reviews, and overcoming my reluctance based on a bad memory of another masked troupe performing poorly at IFCC in the past. Ultimately waving outside acclaim in Portlanders’ faces proved a shrewd move, and we’ve heard of them now. When it comes to masked movement in Portland, Imago have long—and deservingly—been the top Frogz. In the broader realm of physical theater, aerial collectives already abound, vaudeville variety curation already falls largely to the tireless Wanderlust Circus and Swingtime PDX, and semi-annually, Cirque du Soleil pirouettes through town, bringing clowns at the créme of “Dell’arte” standards. Portland’s physical theater scene, therefore—like its indie rock scene, comedy scene, etc.—may already be at or over capacity to serve local demand.  But generally when true excellence rears its head in any discipline, the key players will scooch over just enough to make room.

“We want the community to get to know our work,” said Braidwood.  We’ve spent so much time on the road touring that we’ve neglected our own hometown; we’ve developed great audiences all over the place…except for here,” By their closing show on Saturday, however, that discrepancy seemed to have resolved; the troupe packed the IFCC and earned a standing ovation. They’ve also begun coordinating a show with Headwaters Theater next summer. Headwaters’ territory, a crossover zone where butoh impresario Mizu Desierto marries madcap whimsy to contemp-art cred, seems a suitable next proving ground for the agile players in that the butoh standard—minimalist, focused habitation of character—is a fit. Thematically, though, “G & F”‘s narrative more closely aligns with tear-jerkers like Hand2Mouth’s “My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow,” and their mask craft with places like—yes, Imago, and their new space-mate Tears of Joy.

But enough about Portland Underground Clown Politics. The show itself wins on deft execution and universal theme. All we actually see is Mrs. Fischer reminiscing about her (presumably dead, presumably husband) by fawning over a music box and a camel coat. We see her evading visits from both Grim and her day nurse. We see her gazing with dread on an unopened black envelope, and eventually we see a prolonged and multi-layered confrontation between her and her would-be undertaker. Not all audience members can identify with the character’s old age, but her fear of death is universal—as is her dread of official mail, her annoyance at unwanted visitors, and her sentimental handling of lost-loved-one mementos. The story’s so simple, and in many ways gentle, that I’m tempted to recommend it for all-ages. Though the Grim mask itself may seem demonically horrifying to very young, very sensitive kids, the ultimate takeaway could prove more effective than the usual “my first gerbil” method of acclimating little ones to the idea of mortality. Emily Windler’s pre show “Ta-Da,” a fidgety little girl making adorably failed attempts at a “majic” act, definitively proves Wonderheads has some child-charming, modular festival fodder up its sleeve.

Suffice to say, heads up for more homecomings from this wonderful group.


A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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