PANOPTIKUM: It's easy, when talking about the "building blocks" of human existence, to forget that building blocks are toys, after all. Indeed, though the majority of the mostly German-language productions at this Bavarian festival are designed for those 4-7 years old and up, they don't shy away from the largest themes theatre could possibly tackle: time, creation, death.
Theater Couturier and Ikkola, of Berlin and Dresden, respectively, present a show that translates as Duck, Death and Tulip, based on a children's book by Wolf Erlbruch and directed by Jörg Lehmann, in which a duck makes friends, literally, with her mortality. From Halle, Germany, Puppentheater's All Beginnings—Histories of Creation by Ines Heinrich-Frank, Lars Frank, Karl Gündel and Uwe Steinbach, highlights the playing-God aspect of puppetry (and these gods, not unlike Zeus and Hera, aren't above disruptive quarrelling). From Swiss company fünfnachbusch comes a "brief history of time" from the point of view of a mayfly (Absolute Beginners, by Bettina Wegenast, directed by Beatrix Bühler). Carte Blanche of Denmark's Shadow of Time asks children to contemplate where we humans fall on the vast timeline of existence.
Not everything has such existential implications, however. Painted Garden by Italy's Compagnia T.P.O. finds simpler delights in color, shape and space. In addition to all this, look for a strong representation from the festival's home city of Nuremberg, including Das Papiertheater, SETanztheater, Thalias Kompagnons, Theater Pfütze, Theater Lanzelot, Theater Rootslöffel, Theater Salz+Pfeffer and organizing company Theater Mummpitz. (Feb 9-14; (49) 911-60005-24; www.festival-panoptikum.de)
HERE'S TO YOU, OR BIZARRE: At the Bosnian National Theatre of Zenica, a Bulgarian director is making his Bosnian debut. Petar Kaukov is the head of his native country's Youth Theatre Nikolay Binev, an expansive space in Sofia that presents handsomely mounted kid-friendly fare, as well as musicals and dramas aimed at an older crowd.
The play he is directing in Zenica, by Serbian playwright Zeljko Hubac, is definitely more suitable for the latter age-group. Here's to You, or Bizarre is a bleakly funny fugue of death, set on several levels of an apartment building in Belgrade populated by junkies, hookers and mobsters. An English translation of the play, subtitled "Three scenes of nonsense for five actors and fifteen characters," can be read online at www.pozorje.org.rs/scenaeng/no21-6.htm.According to Serbian critic Svetislav Jovanov, Hubac's script turns dramatic conventions upside-down through his "treatment of realism as a sophisticated game with an open outcome." But it feels inevitable, as these three gritty stories are layered on top of one another, that the outcome for none of these desperate characters could be good. (Opens in March; (387) 32-401-142; www.bnp.com.ba)
SPARK Festival: The Belfry Theatre in British Columbia is hosting its SPARK Festival, which includes miniplays and readings but centers around four new Canadian productions. Among them this year is the macabre and beautiful The Drowning Girls, staged by Edmonton, Alberta's Bent Out of Shape Productions. The play is by Daniela Vlaskalic, Beth Graham and Charlie Tomlinson (Tomlinson directs, and the former two play the titular doomed ladies, along with Natascha Girgis). The three characters are ghostly narrators, telling the story of the serial killer who married them, stole their dowries, then held them underwater in their baths. Their fate is never far from the audience's mind from the moment the three bedraggled figures in white emerge spluttering from old-fashioned tubs on stage.
Another offering is 2b theatre of Halifax, Nova Scotia's The Russian Play, a 2006 script by Hannah Moscovitch that earned her notice at Toronto's SummerWorks. Directed by Christian Barry, this tale of an unlucky-in-love Russian peasant girl is set against the backdrop of Stalinist Moscow. Rounding out the quartet of plays are Agnes B, about cabaret singer and actress Agnes Bernelle, staged by hometown company Suddenly Dance Theatre and written and directed by David Ferguson; and Vancouver's Rough House with Tiny Apocalypse, about a really bad day at the office, by Camille Gingras and directed by James Fagan Tait. (March 9-21; (250) 385-6815; www.belfry.bc.ca)
Hong Kong Arts Festival: Singapore's W!LD RICE, Japan's chelfitsch, New Zealand's Red Leap Theatre, British actor/director Steven Berkoff and the U.S./U.K. Bridge Project are among HKAF's international visitors this year. Chinese highlights include the premiere of The Truth About Lying, a play about married partners at a law firm specializing in divorce. Playwright Wong Wing-sze co-directs with actor Lee Chun-chow. Wong was trained as an actor herself, and began writing plays in the hopes of collecting the cash prize from a contest; in the nearly 10 years since, she has written 16 full-length shows. Also, Fredric Mao, artistic director of the Hong Kong Repertory Theater since 2001 (he also logged time early in his career at California's Napa Valley Theater Company and as an actor in Broadway's Pacific Overtures) directs a new piece of musical theatre, The Liaisons. Based on a 17th-century Chinese legend, it features scenic design by Tim Yip, known stateside for his Oscar-winning art direction of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Perhaps most significant is the collaboration between influential director Lin Zhaohua and venerable novelist/playwright Lao She (Teahouse) on Five Acts of Life, based on the writer's short stories of everyday Chinese life in the 1930s and '40s. (Feb. 25-March 28; (852) 2824 3555; www.hk.artsfestival.org)
Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards: Those who attend these awards can look forward to much more than an evening of statuettes and speeches—it's a weeklong festival in which all of the nominated 2009 shows are performed, culminating in an awards presentation on the final evening. Nominations will be publicized this month on the festival's website. According to Ravi Dubey, the festival's creative director, more than 200 entries were received from across India; for this fourth round, META "has thrown the field open to all regional languages in an initiative to make the awards for excellence accessible to all Indian theatre practitioners." The event is underwritten by car manufacturer Mahindra, a company with a longstanding commitment to the arts, including support of the intercollegiate Theatre Festival in Delhi. The company has publicly stated its aspiration to establish a Mahindra Academy for Excellence in Theatre in the not-so-distant future. (March 2-7; (91)-11-26011430; www.metawards.com)
Bravo! The International Children's Theatre Festival: "More interesting, inspiring theatre for the young!" is the rallying cry of this effort by the Finnish center of youth-theatre organization ASSITEJ. The first Bravo! Festival in 2000 was organized at the end of a decade when several events and companies serving young audiences in Finland, including a Children's Festival, Theatre Pieni Suomi and the Vihrea Omena puppet theatre, had disappeared from the scene. In 2000 Bravo! featured the nine designated "Cultural Capitals of Europe," and its success helped the Finnish ASSITEJ center to successfully lobby for the inclusion of children's theatre in the curriculum at the Finnish Theatre Academy, as well as to gain support for an ongoing biennial festival. (March 14-21; email@example.com; www.bravofinland.org)