Spare Times: For Children for Oct. 22-28

Imago Theatre
The New York Times

By Laurel Graeber


Theatergoers usually expect to stare, not to be stared at.

But at “ZooZoo” you’ll be scrutinized. This begins just seconds into the production, as small blue lights dance in the pitch-black darkness above the New Victory Theater’s stage. Knocking into one another like balls on a pool table, the lights randomly pair off, and lo and behold (with the emphasis on behold), you’re the focus of intense gazes. Accompanied by the sound of crickets chirping, this sketch is called “Bugeyes,” but I found myself thinking more of owls than of insects.

Imago Theater, creator of “ZooZoo,” probably wouldn’t mind. This unusual company, from Portland, Ore., wants you to use your imagination, and over the course of an hour you’re regarded by creatures — giant frogs, strutting penguins — and even by objects that don’t, technically speaking, have eyes. Using enormous puppets, masks and head-to-toe costumes, Imago, founded by its artistic directors, Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad, creates beings that want not just to look at you but also to meet you. Whether you find this delightful or unsettling (or both) will depend partly on your age.

Most of the children at a recent performance seemed thrilled by the proceedings, which include circuslike music (by Katie Griesar) and sound effects but no dialogue. Although a few preschoolers became alarmed when bushy-tailed anteaters and hulking polar bears, left, seeming to be inexorably drawn, clambered off the stage and into the audience, many small hands reached out eagerly to pet and poke. If your kids identify with Max in “Where the Wild Things Are,” this is their show.

Its 10 vignettes, some new and some from past productions, offer a bit of gymnastic artistry, especially “Larvabatic,” in which what looks like an insect-worm hybrid stands on one leg, waving its tapered thorax in an aerial ballet. But the strength of the troupe, inspired by the teachings of the French actor and mime Jacques Lecoq, is more physical comedy than acrobatics. The polar bears form a conga line; the penguins play a game of musical chairs; two huge accordion-pleated cylinders produce music by stroking each other like Slinkys in love. The inanimate springs to life; the animal gains human curiosity. Just watch.