Innovative and acrobatic theater group best known for 'Frogz' pulls rabbits out of its hat
Imago Theatre will have a new spring in its step next week when four bunnies join the menagerie, just in time for Easter.
As they bounce onto the velveteen stage at the company's theater, just off East Burnside Street, the big white rabbits Ñ 6 feet tall (including ears) Ñ will be Alice-in-Wonderland-sized surprises in their own segment of the redesigned 'Frogz.'
Imago co-founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle are putting final touches on the company's next show, 'Biglittlethings,' in which the bunnies will join giant Slinkys, lizards, penguins, babies, sloths, orbs and paper bags in the extraordinary anthropomorphic world that Mouawad and Triffle have imagined.
'We've been working on 'Biglittlethings' for about a year and a half,' says Mouawad, 46, whose deadpan delivery provides some insight into the quirky inner workings of his mind, as well as his 20-year creative career with Triffle, his wife. Both used to dance in the pieces they created, but now she makes the costumes and he directs.
'We mounted a preview version of 'Biglittlethings' in December, and our contact at the New Victory Theater in New York (where they've played several times) came to see it,' Mouawad says. 'She liked it, but said it was half-cooked, and to cook it some more and she'll come see it again.'
Mouawad and Triffle are well versed in the methods of French mime instructor and theatrical director Jacques Lecoq. Triffle studied with Lecoq for three years and Mouawad attended the Hayes-Marshall School of Theatre Arts (a Lecoq-based school) in Portland. The two met at a ballet class in 1977. Their signature frogs first appeared in 1979.
Over the years the couple have learned that some animals, such as frogs and rabbits, are naturally funny.
'But the lizards and alligators are scary,' Triffle says.
The creative process is like a reductive sauce Ñ it takes time, Mouawad says. 'Biglittlethings' is set to open in Portland next December.
'Each new work takes three to six months to develop and comes down to five to eight minutes long. It doesn't have to be a certain length Ñ if it's three minutes and it's complete, that'll do. But it has to go through what theater has to go through.'
And that's metamorphosis, which is a tough nut to crack, Triffle says.
'The hardest thing for us to find is an ending. We can find the concept, we can find the beginning, meander around in the middle and come to a climax. But the ending is hard,' she says.
A flair for absurdity is a key part of their success, along with the detailed human observation that they learned from Lecoq and translate to nonhumans.
'Lecoq is brilliant at breaking down human behavior and interaction; little tiny moments like (those of) Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin,' Mouawad says.
'Imagine somebody's looking at me across the cafe,' he continues. 'I look at them; they say 'Hi!' I say 'Hi!' back. And they're talking to the person behind me.'
'Everybody's had that happen,' Triffle says.
'That's what we look for,' Mouawad says. 'It's why 'Frogz' is successful but it's not so easy to come up with.'
Along with the frogs and rabbits, a group of penguins has been a big hit in recent shows. But initially the birds fell flat on their well-padded tummies.
'Carol did a great job on the costumes; I did a good job on the masks. We were enthralled and put together a 10-minute piece,' Mouawad says. 'We did a show and gave out survey cards to kids and adults. They scored the frog a nine (out) of 10, the Larvabatic (an amazing acrobatic grub) got a 10, and the penguins got a two or even a zero. And I thought, we're six weeks from Broadway, and we've got a penguin problem!'
The company was performing in New Haven, Conn., at the time, so it rented a gym at Yale University to work on the problem.
'We had set them out on the tundra, but that wasn't enough,' Triffle says. 'Jerry kept them in the penguin world Ñ but he added musical chairs.' The addition of this bit upped the level of madcap action.
The company headed into the next matinee, very depressed.
'I thought, 'This is not going to work,' but as soon as the piece started, the laughter was uproarious. They stole the show,' Mouawad says.
Because the show is a mixture of dance, theater and music, language presents no barrier when the company travels. Imago tours regularly all over the United States with forays into Southeast Asia and Europe. One routine, however, did present a problem in Taiwan, Mouawad says.
The first half of the show ends with clowns stacking boxes that misspell the word 'Intermission.' Unfortunately, Mouawad had no idea how to spell it in Chinese.
'So we meet a guy who speaks pretty good English and he writes it down Ñ and it's one character! We have 11 or 12 boxes! What are we going to do? So he came up with a long sentence which still got a laugh and said, 'Now we will take a break, and everyone will go outside and have fun while we reset the show.' '
Mouawad estimates 30 or 40 performers have acted in Imago's shows, some staying as long as six years and one Ñ Kim Dahle Ñ returning after a two-year rest.
'Kim was never on stage before coming to us, but she went from being a goofball girl to a lead actress,' Triffle says with satisfaction.
The company had 20 dancers and six staff members before Christmas, when more shows were scheduled, but currently the dancers, who portray five frogs and four rabbits, have to double as other creatures.
The company's Portland home is a 75-year-old, 18,000-square-foot edifice that once belonged to the Freemasons.
'We bought it 10 years ago; before that we had to rent spaces to perform,' Triffle says. 'Now we spend all our extra money fixing this place up.'
Like all Imago creatures, being a rabbit demands precise physical control Ñ especially moving the head, which must face at a different angle than the dancer's own, to complete the rabbit illusion.
At rehearsal Jaime Currier wiggles into her rabbit costume.
'Do you put your feet on before your legs?' she asks fellow bunny Kerry Silva. 'These feel like footie pajamas.'
And what's the best thing about being a bunny?
'The workout it gives your legs,' says bunny Michael Vertlieb.
'The carrots,' Currier says.