Post-modern puppetry enchants children, adults alike

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Puppet Show, 'The Good, the Bad, and the Wolf' by Aperture Africa at Aga Khan High School Academy Auditorium, March 3, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The Good, the Bad and the Wolf’ (GBW) is a splendid shocker of a show.

Deemed ‘family friendly’ by its producers, Aperture Africa, the performance, which premiered last Friday night at Oshwal Academy Junior High Auditorium, was so much more than that.

It was a musical theatre which had its cast singing and dancing to a musical score that was light and yes, child-friendly. Yet it was equally vibrant with hip-hop sounds and rhythms that were syncopated and fresh.

It was also comedy as scriptwriter-director Kasia Meszaros and her Polish counterpart Maciej Ochalik had fun transforming the traditional into the post-modern where Andrew Tumbo’s Wolf was never threatening but ever absurd in his efforts to trick three little pigs and little red riding hood, but never managed to succeed.

GBW was also a platform for seeing new talents that were versatile and skilled theatrically.

All that was best seen from the moment the show opened and Doanna Owano took on her first role as the Narrator of this delightfully re-imagined fairy tale, the re-assembling of two traditional children’s stories into one inspiring production that brought children up on stage on opening night and got parents equally engaged.

Unlike traditional puppetry, the puppeteers not only showed their faces on stage. They also voiced their puppets’ words without hiding their role in speaking the puppets’ part.

It’s a liberated style of puppetry that seemed to let loose a heightened power of imagination, skill and style that defied stereotypes and challenged its audience to engage with them wholeheartedly.

It also seemed that one of the company’s key commitments was to create a production that was immersive and interactive, and one that drew out the child in everyone who came to watch.

As much as GBW is called puppet theatre, Kasia introduced us to a radically different kind of theatre from what Nairobi audiences are used to seeing.

It felt inclusive of several genres of performance combined. For it wasn’t just children’s theatre and simple fairy tales.

There was also storytelling, singing, dancing, comedy and satire as well as interactivity and a complete breakdown of the wall between the actors and the audience.

Then again, it was also a puppet show, but these puppets had a life of their own, shaped as they were by the same puppet-makers (Fedelis Kyalo and Victor Otieno) that create the ones we see regularly on The XYZ Show.

Kasia’s script included a slew of fairy tale characters, everyone from the Three Little Pigs (played by Fedelis, Victor, and Chandni Vaya) to Little Red (Chandni was double cast), her Granny (Doanna was also double cast), and eventually even the big bad Wolf with whom we almost sympathized since we knew that he was bound to fail, no matter how ferocious he tried to be.

Costumed in a coat and hat that looked like they were made from a wolf’s woolly skin, Tumbo’s Wolf was otherwise represented only by a large sharp-toothed head that the actor wielded like a weapon aimed at his prey, those he’d never get a chance to eat.

It was only Bilal Wanjau who didn’t fit into the fairy tale class, but he nonetheless added to the hilarity of the show with his eccentric conduct.

Using three different half-masks, he took on the characters of a salesman, a cop, and a Mr Patel, all of whom made us laugh.

Kasia told BDLife that in the traditional style of puppetry, the actors remain hidden while they manipulate their puppets.

But in the post-modern mode that she brought to Kenya, the puppeteers (which she prefers to call ‘animators’) come out from behind the curtain and breathe life into their puppets through the power of their imagination. In this new method, there is meant to be no distinction between the puppeteer and the puppet.

The puppet becomes an extension of the actor or vice versa. They are meant to work as one. And that is what we saw in GBW.

Speaking to Kasia before the show opened, she told BDLife that it was a pleasure to work with her cast, especially as it had brought her closer to Kenyans than she had the opportunity to get before.

But the show was also a time for her to share and mentor them in her new techniques of puppetry and performance.

“It was a new experience for us both, but it was a privilege to work with such a sensitive cast who quickly picked up our new approach to puppetry.”

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