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'ZooZoo' review: Imago Theatre's family show resonates with all ages

12.09.11
Imago Theatre
The Oregonian

By Holly Johnson

Imago Theatre's riveting family show "ZooZoo" celebrates animals both exotic and familiar, tiny and huge. Lugubrious anteaters, lumbering hippos with serious sleep problems and giant fluffy polar bears with a tendency to sit on audience members' laps are some of the familiar figures we meet from previous shows, events that have wowed audiences at the New Victoria Theater in New York City during various tours. 

Little ones and adults alike readily relate to the world of living beings, and Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad's  company combines masks, mime, lighting and much more to bring fresh, often whacky perspective to that world as we know it, a place where even inanimate objects can take on a life of their own.

The company's new piece, "Cats," premiered in time for the holidays. It's one of Imago's sharpest sequences to date, doubly delightful because just about everyone can readily relate to the furry household pets.

But this trio of striped felines reveals a blend of catlike and human characteristics, giving them a unique identity that is pure Imago. Kids in the audience giggled in recognition as the kitties mirrored each other's behavior, paws twitching or punching the air, torsos stretching and turning in unison, creating a engaging visual symmetry.

A radio is playing somewhere, the stations changing rapidly, and the cats respond physically to each new sound. When the invisible listener finally settles on a rock-music station, the three move into action that is decidedly human, as they dance and wiggle their bottoms to the beat.

The costumes and cat heads are wonderfully conceived by fabricators Triffle, Mouawad, Mark Forrest and Cati Thomas. The tabbies with stylized stripes of different hues and oversized heads with evocative slitted eyes bring to mind a cartoon quality, but move beyond that into a slightly surreal realm.

Besides building great visual pieces and using supple performers whose dance, acrobatic and mime skills shine, the company knows how to provide a great sense of place, thanks to Jeff Forbes' lighting designs, specific sound effects and marvelous original music by company composer Katie Griesar, whose materials ranges from techno-pop to European circus.

During "Polar Bears," we hear the sound of distant Arctic storms and see a golden hazy light shining from offstage: Although we may never have been to the ice floes of the north, we know we're there. And in "Bugeyes," the rhythmic chirp of crickets in the darkness evokes a Midwest summer where fireflies fill the night.

It's great to hear children respond to live theater: "ZooZoo"'s animals make them laugh out loud.