This is going to sound stupid. It’s going to sound unprofessional, infantile and clichéd, but I’m going to say it anyway. The International Festival of Animated Objects is a magical experience.
Not that theatre outside the realm of animated objects, masks and puppets can’t be magical, but there’s an immediate primacy you can’t quite achieve with flesh and blood actors. It’s unnerving to witness a performer replicate the process of life in a wooden mask or string puppet because of how completely natural it is, yet shouldn’t be. It’s like falling under the sway of a tribal ceremony previously written off as superstitious fancy.
The two feature shows that form the first half of the IFAO, Crawdaddy’s Odditorium and Tales from the Mask, embrace this ideal completely. It’s what imbues the festival with such magic — an unabashed commitment to spectacle that evokes the delight we once took from the darkness of possibility only found in the theatre.
• Crawdaddy’s Odditorium — Crawdaddy is the kind of show that causes Baptist ministers to clutch their Bibles just a little tighter than usual; the kind of show your mother warned would happen if you kept making those faces. Yet underneath the freak sex, the chorus of singing fetuses and a veneer of general nastiness, lays a giant heart beating within a fascinating family dynamic.
We’re first introduced to Crawdaddy (Christopher Hunt), a sneering lobster man in a red track suit who is in charge of his family’s travelling freak show. There’s his wife Veronica the fat lady (Jacqueline Dandeneau), and their Siamese twin daughters, Lily (Esther Haddad) and Heather (Zuzka Sabata), living their freak-show lives when it all gets upended after the arrival of a freak wannabe, Val (Tyler Olsen).
The show is at its best when it indulges its freak-show element in beautifully staged set pieces, particularly the birth of the Siamese Twins and the various performances of the freaks. When Crawdaddy balances himself on the tip of a knife, it’s hard not to smile even if, squinting hard enough, you can see underneath the façade of the trick. It’s just a shame the show can’t keep this energy and drive all the way through. After establishing this fascinating history and family dynamic, Crawdaddy inexplicably shifts its focus in its last third onto the uninteresting fate of an uninteresting character (damn you, Val) and abruptly and obtusely ends in a manner that unnecessarily calls into question the entire narrative. Despite this, Crawdaddy has so much wonder stuffed up its sleeve, it remains goddamn entertaining throughout.
• Tales From the Mask — A lecture from Swedish mask-maker Torbjörn Alström on the origins of masks and how they reflect the human experience doesn’t exactly sound like an electric night of theatre, but somehow, it manages to be just that. Sure, the performances and lecture aspects could be better integrated, and wandering ruminations on masks never seem to gain much traction, but it all becomes irrelevant when Alström puts on a mask.
At first, he appears surprisingly unspectacular, dressed in a suit one size too big, looking like an Eastern European butcher on his way to a funeral. Then the masks take hold, and with just the sparest of movements he transforms into something that, quite frankly, scared the shit out of me one moment and had me laughing the next. His characters are so realized, so alive, it makes for a disorienting and almost confrontational experience that penetrates deep-seated issues of identity and, I hate to say it, the human experience.
The festival continues until February 1, featuring Big Sky’s Matriarchs of the Earth & Spirit Whales (January 29, 31 and February 1), Alice Nelson’s Elephants in Zulu (January 29) and then culminating in the wild free-for-all of Dolly Wiggler Cabaret (January 31 and February 1).