MANITOBA Theatre for Young People often demonstrates with its programming that a show can be very simple and gently paced, yet captivate both children and adults.
The House at Pooh Corner was a beautiful example this season.
The dreamy, image-based puppet play The Star Keeper, however, is so slow-moving and devoid of an engaging story that it soon becomes tedious. The wordless fantasy, marketed to ages five to 12, has public performances today and Sunday, as well as April 20-22.
It stretched into a very long hour for an elementary-school audience on Thursday.
The impeccably performed show by Montreal's Thé¢tre de l'Oeil has toured the world since 1997 and won awards. But an extremely restless audience in which you can hear adults endlessly shushing (when they're not peering at their watches or phones) and kids saying, "Is it lunchtime?" and "Is this gonna be over?" tells the tale.
Whole groups of kids and chaperones kept getting up and heading to the washroom in mid-show. That doesn't happen when students really want to see what happens next.
This is the same company that brought us the bizarre, less-than-crowd-pleasing puppet play Holy Cow! in 2010. As in that production, the design of the puppets and sets is undeniably clever. Four puppeteers wear black hoods and clothing so they're almost unseen.
They operate a wildly imaginative, surreal array of marionettes and rod puppets. An enormous human figure with a belly that opens as a stage for smaller puppets, and a mermaid with seaweed hair that seems to float are especially dazzling. But the black-box puppet theatre is set back on the stage, so the details of smaller puppets, such as a demanding baby, can be hard to discern.
The main character is a muddy-coloured worm with the face of a sweet clown. He rescues a fallen star (a silver ball) and stows it in his basket. After various whimsical, random-feeling episodes accompanied by charming music, such as one in which a unicyclist rides on a high wire, rising "water" fills the space.
Now fish play with the star until one swallows it, a seahorse finds it, an octopus lyrically bounces it from tentacle to tentacle, and so on, until the worm succeeds in restoring it to the heavens.
The press kit tells us we're "immersed in the magical universe of children's dreams" but the semi-European, retro visual style is from at least 60 years ago, so we're not immersed in any child's dream of today.
There are, for instance, strange floating figures in long white gowns that I would have assumed were ghosts, if kids around me who had been prepped by their teachers hadn't announced, "Those are the sleepwalkers."
Since The Star Keeper's central impact comes from visual surprise and wonder, it seems to defeat the purpose to tell children ahead of time what they're going to see.
If this self-consciously precious and arty dream can't make a connection with audiences as it unfolds, maybe too much attention has gone into the wizardry of the puppetry, and not enough into giving the tale some earthbound coherence, pacing and heart.