The musical penguins of Théâtre Maât's Banquise, in Belgium (photo by Benjamin Struelens)
Banquise and Ginkgo et la Jardinière: Hadi El Gammal is pretty sure that his is the only Belgian theatre named after an Egyptian goddess. When the artist, who is of Egyptian-Belgian descent, founded Théâtre Maât in Brussels in 1987 with Christine Smeysters, they named their child-centric company after a deity who symbolizes universal harmony and equilibrium. Those values are on display in the two nature-focused shows that they are scheduled to perform in Belgian schools and public venues over the next few months. Both productions also draw deeply on the music-and-composition backgrounds of the company's founders: El Gammal is a composer, and Smeysters graduated from New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
Maât's Ginkgo et la jardinière, a co-production with Montreal's Théâtre Bouches Décousues, is a "musical poem" that traces the life cycle of a garden. In the case of Banquise—as with many of Maât's shows aimed at the very young—the creators have jettisoned words altogether. The show, the title of which means "ice floe," alludes with a whimsical touch to global warming. Its stars: a special species of penguin "that lives at the boundary of our imagination." These birds don't swim—nor, despite their magical mien, do they talk—but they can play a cello or accordion with virtuosity. "We love penguins. They are so sweet, and so theatrical," is El Gammal's hard-to-argue-with reasoning. "We also noticed that classical musicians often dress as penguins." (In repertory; (32) 2-242-76-89; www.theatremaat.be)
The Hunt for the Scroobious Pip: A man named Quangle Wangle who lives in a Crumpetty Tree and feels overshadowed by his enormous hat; temperamental Jumblies whose green-headed, blue-handed brethren left them behind to go to sea in a sieve; an animal who, when asked to identify his genus and species, simply replies, "Chippetty Flip; Flippetty Chip / My only name is the Scroobious Pip." Writer Andrew Pollard has mined such delightful oddities from the poetry of Edward Lear—the 19th-century British author/illustrator famed for elevating nonsense to an art—and created a musical family show that premieres this holiday season at England's Stephen Joseph Theatre. Pollard dove into the poems looking for zany personalities and settings, such as the "monkey with lollipop paws" he so vividly remembers from his childhood reading of Lear. He emerged with The Hunt for the Scroobious Pip, an original story in which the poet himself is a thinly disguised character. "Lear seemed often to be vexed by the world, to be at odds with life and himself," remarks Pollard. He borrowed those traits for Quangle, his main character—then balanced out the ennui by also taking a few cues from the Three Stooges.
So, how exactly does one design a Crumpetty Tree? Says Pollard, "Small children's shows always have to work on a tight budget, so imagination is key." Along with director Adam Sunderland, a frequent collaborator, he hit upon the idea of having actors work in front of a large chalkboard on which they draw and erase their own scenery. Pollard isn't worried that his young audience won't take the leap along with them: "Kids often find the real world absurd," he points out, "so they have no trouble entering another one." (Thru Dec. 24; (44) 1723-370540; www.sjt.uk.com)
Red Letters: When Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre's artistic producer, Joyce Lam, received a musical-theatre script from composer Alan Bau, she didn't lack for reasons to pass on producing it, as a dozen other companies already had. For one thing, the script Bau sent was only 10 pages. The concept was there, along with some music—but as books go, it was slim. Second, Bau didn't have any smash-hit musicals to his credit. A physician by trade with a background in classical piano, he had never, in fact, had a professional production of his work. Third, VACT didn't have a track record of developing new plays or musicals. The 11-year-old company, run by four volunteer core staff members, produces a mix of professional, semi-professional and amateur theatre and comedy offerings, and for its Equity productions gravitates to previously successful shows, such as Neil Simon's The Odd Couple or Michael Golamco's Cowboy vs. Samurai.
Despite all this, Lam saw potential both in the subject material Bau had chosen—the Chinese-Canadian immigrant experience in the early 20th century—and in Bau's melodic songs, the style of which, she says, reminded her of Golden Age musicals such as South Pacific. VACT is dedicated solely to producing work by, about and/or cast with North Americans of Asian ethnicity, and its mission is clearly aligned with Bau's story. At the center of Red Letters is the tragic figure of Shen, who leaves his wife Mei in China to seek his fortune in Canada. His efforts to earn enough money to bring his family to join him are thwarted by an unreasonable head tax on all new Chinese arrivals (by 1903, it was up to $500 per person, the equivalent of two years' pay for most workers); and then by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively halted Chinese immigration from 1923 to 1949. VACT hired writer Kathy Leung to collaborate with Bau on fleshing out and strengthening the book. The team received additional feedback from David Lai, a professor emeritus at Victoria University, who steered them toward such historically realistic details as Shen's stint at a lumberyard and exposure to gambling.
As it happened, the timing for Bau's story was fortuitous: As part of a formal 2006 apology, the Canadian government announced grant money for programming that would educate people about the head tax and Exclusion Act. "We were the only application that made history into a performance instead of an exhibit," Lam says proudly. They received funding for developing and producing the musical, which has now embarked on a three-city tour of British Columbia. Touring, by the way, is another first for VACT. Richmond's population is more than half Chinese-Canadian, and Victoria is the landing place of the first Chinese immigrants. "We wanted to go there to honor them," Lam says.
For Bau, the politics of the story take a backseat to the emotional truth of the situation, which he says he didn't fully grasp until he began his research. "The more I learned, the more I became intrigued, and also very sad," he recalls. "I love happy endings, but a lot of the true accounts are tragic." Shen's story, he continues, is "a composite of many people's hardships." An accomplished composer, conductor and musical director, David Warrack, took Bau under his wing and helped him hone his songwriting style—but "I wasn't looking for a technical challenge," Bau says. "I wanted music that speaks to the heart." (Vancouver: Thru Dec. 4; Richmond: Dec. 30-Jan. 8; Victoria: Jan. 13-16; 604-638-5537; www.vact.ca)
Festival d'automne: Although the four-month Autumn Festival in Paris comes to a close on the final day of the year, two somber yet luminous productions drawn from Norwegian texts will continue their runs through late January: Directed by Patrice Chéreau, Rêve d'automne (or Dream of Autumn), Terje Sinding's French translation of a Jon Fosse play, is set in a cemetery reimagined by Chéreau as a museum. Claude Régy directs Brume de Dieu (Mist of God), an adaptation of Tarjei Vesaas's 1957 existential novel The Birds, about a mentally disabled teenager who is trying to feel his way toward greater independence and understanding. Régy has said his staging is especially inspired by the idea of the blurred boundary between light and dark, along with the blurring of truths and realities. (Thru Dec. 31; (33) 1-53-45-17-00; www.festival-automne.com)