Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Night Zoo written and directed by Michael Barlow

The Night Zoo written and directed by Michael Barlow, designed by Iona McAuley, music composed by Lee Buddle.  Spare Parts Puppet Theatre at The Street Theatre, April 26-30, 2011 (Wednesday – Saturday 10am and 2pm).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 26

I had always thought of the company name, Spare Parts, as a whimsical joke, perhaps even a little sad originally when financial support was a struggle.  Perhaps it still is.  But this production, skilfully performed by Katya Shevtsov and Jacob Lehrer (who were ‘phantasmagorical’ according to my five-year-old companion), was spare in the sense of being ‘poor theatre’.  Less complexity on stage meant more opportunity for our imaginations to fill in the links which create the theatrical illusion.

The story is traditional in form.  Jamie cannot have pets in the high rise flat where she lives, dreams of the animals in the zoo who at first take no notice of her, but dreams again of becoming friends and playing with them.  Later in the park with her parents she plays with a dog who has no home, and her parents agree to let her keep him as a pet.  There is, of course romance and some sentimentality, since it seems that the parents will be breaking the no-pet rule, but for young isolated children the purpose is to encourage forming positive relationships.  Jamie’s dream not only stimulates enjoyment and empathy with the animals, but also changes her parents’ standard ‘sorry, but no’ approach to realising that their lonely child needs a companion.

Some of the stage ‘business’ which might have made the production less spare if it had all been physically represented, such as the time and locality transitions, were neatly done by video projection.  The result was a layering of dramatic frames from two-dimensional story-book format to three-dimensional ‘reality’.  The mode-shifting involved the performers acting as people, in costume as animals and as puppeteers, with transitions from one kind of role to another smoothly done.

Though from the children’s point of view The Night Zoo is engaging and directly accessible – apparently simple – the show is a nice example of modern performance puppetry – not so simple as it looks.