Go ahead and jump

Imago Theatre feels froggy

By Christian Carvajal on November 21, 2018

Rather than categorizing Frogz, the show hopping into Tacoma Arts Live's newly refurbished Pantages Theater this Saturday, it might be easier to say what it isn't. It isn't, for example, Aristophanes' classic comedy The Frogs (Bátrachoi), which mocked peacenik progressives and won Athens' Lenaia Festival for Dionysus in 405 B.C. This Frogz isn't even a play, properly speaking, at least not the kind marked by clever dialogue. This Frogz has little if any dialogue. Its characters are animals, babies, household objects -- the stuff of theater for very young audiences, except it isn't really children's theater, either. It's a live show every audience member from 100 days old to 100 years can enjoy. In that sense, it's also terrific holiday entertainment, except it doesn't say anything specifically about the holidays. It has music and took Broadway's New Victory Theater by storm, but that doesn't make it a Broadway musical. So what the frog is it? It's earnest, witty and childlike in the best sense of the word, so perhaps we should call it simply a show.

Imago Theatre is a Portland, Oregon, company founded by Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle in early 1979; Frogz was the first of its over 50 original productions to date. Mouawad and Triffle were University of Oregon students at the time. They used costumes, masks and athletic movements to portray its animal characters. Both were trained in movement techniques devised by Parisian mime Jacques Lecoq. The show's been tweaked over the decades, adding a cat, a cowboy, a larva, lizards, a paper bag, penguins, a "sloth circus" and strings. Resident composer Katie Griesar wrote original music, as did Mark De Gli Antoni. The New York Times called Frogz "inspired fun." National Public Radio found it "hard to name a show better-suited to introduce kids to the imaginative power of theater." When it played the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston critics found it "thoroughly enchanting" and said it "makes you realize you see such magic every day, and reminds you to pay attention when you do." Tell us that doesn't sound primed for a magical, holiday outing for kids and their parents and grandparents.

"There is no real fourth wall," Mouawad notes. "Creatures come into the house, and some of the climactic, theatrical moments are a relationship with the audience." Of its scenes, he says, "They're not really stories, they're more like atmospheric, comedic events and situations, so the audience becomes part of that." Although video clips of the company in action are accompanied by the giddy sounds of kids in the audience, Frogz has multigenerational appeal. "We take the form very seriously," said Mouawad. "We're creating it for all people; it just happens to be accessible to kids, so the show itself continues to play for all-adult audiences as well."

The traveling cast of Frogz comprises Kaician Jade Kitko, Laura Loy, Mark Mullaney and Bryan Smith, with stage management by Chris Balo. These actors have been with the show for anywhere from a year to over a decade. It's physically demanding work, Mouawad acknowledged: "By the time you're in your mid-to-late 30s, you're retiring from it." The masks are low-tech but as effective as Jim Henson's hand puppets. "We're talking about papier-mâché masks held in place by a strap," Mouawad said, laughing. "One of our shows we worked on ... some of the puppetry we spent $50,000 on, some was a sock -- and the sock always won."

FROGZ, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 24, Tacoma Arts Live, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $22-$42, 253.591.5894