A wise, wonderful muppeteer once sang, “it ain’t easy being green.” However, risking a statement bordering on heresy, Jim Henson may not have taken into consideration the weird and whimsical behavior of Kermit’s amphibian compatriots found in Imago Theatre’s production of FROGZ.FROGZ is an energetic and dynamic show that blends dance, costumes, music and puppets to create a show for the entire family that has been delighting audiences all around the globe for nearly 20 years, including two successful Broadway runs in 2000 and 2002. The show features only music and no dialogue, and FROGZ co-creator Jerry Mouawad says that the show is “more like a selection of vaudeville pieces. Each piece has illusion, comedy, and a lot of it is absurd and surreal.”
With the help of some very creative costume and set design, FROGZ’s performers are morphed into creatures such as penguins, iguanas, larvae, a very ugly baby, and, of course, the titular frogs.
Mouawad and Carole Triffle, the co-artistic director and co-founder of Imago Theatre, founded the Portland-based group in 1979. Though responsible for many other works, Imago Theatre really took off after international touring began in 1986, and Mouawad and Triffle took FROGZ around the world.
“We always have nibbles from around the world,” says Mouawad about the success of the show. He says that though audiences react differently towards the show in different countries, FROGZ is popular everywhere, with some shows having wild and enthusiastic viewers and others who are more silent with awe.
Mouawad cites Taiwan as an experience with an audience that was particularly interesting. “[The children] were quiet and timid in the first act and in the second act it was like a riot, with children swarming the stage.” He adds, “FROGZ plays differently in different countries, but it’s amazing how universal the show is.”
Mouawad emphasizes how widespread the appeal of the show is, and that the use of movement as a language is universal, certainly more than communicating through words.
The performers from FROGZ have backgrounds in areas from martial arts to theatre to dance. Performer Danielle Vermette calls the show “a lot of fun” and describes it as “a marriage between movement and theatre.” Experienced in traditional theatre, she says that working in the show has been challenging because there is a tendency in traditional theatre to be more psychological than physical, and FROGZ, with no dialogue, communicates with audiences strictly through physical movement.
Vermette was also challenged by the fact that she had never worked with masks before. “It’s a lot more interesting to try and communicate through your body, and a lot more challenging,” she says of the show’s extensive masks and costumes.
The use of masks is an important feature of Imago Theatre. Imago Theatre was designed to mirror the teachings of the very influential master of mime and movement, Jacques Lecoq, who founded the well know Jacques Lecoq School in 1956.
Lecoq stressed the use of masks in performance, believing that masks are essential in teaching to elevate and simplify the psychological level of a play, while enlarging and deepening the sense of people and things in the play as well.
The school is an international professional school of mime and theater based on movement and the human body, relying on knowledge of the organic and emotional dynamics of man and nature. Triffle studied for several years under the master himself, and Mouawad studied under one of Lecoq’s students.
“My life completely changed after studying Lecoq,” says Mouawad about his mentor. “I was opened up to seeing everything in a different way. Everything I looked at, I was analyzing how it was moving … it’s kind of like learning a language.”
Mouawad refers to the other more serious work that Imago does as extistential in nature, referring to “the ontological study of being and what it means to be alive,” and showing his Lecoq trained roots. He notes that though it would be a stretch to classify FROGZ in the same existential way, the play does stay in the moment and has no past or future. However, he admits that the main purpose of FROGZ is to dazzle and delight audiences of every age.
Mouawad agrees with comparisons to FROGZ as being Imago Theatre’s version of Theatre Beyond Words’ Potato People shows, and even cites the local theatre group as an influence in Imago’s evolution.
Mouwad stresses that audiences will not soon forget the show and its spectacular production. “The frogs look very human and very frog-like at the same time. There is a lot of bits of business ‘schticks’, and Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin style physical comedy.”
After its show at the David S. Howes Theatre next Sunday, FROGZ will tour until mid-April, when it will return home to Portland for a six week run. After that, Mouawad says that the company will work on “spicing up” one of their most recent creations, Biglittlethings, another unusual show using performers and puppetry in a similar way to FROGZ.
FROGZ will play one show only at the David S. Howes Theatre on Sunday, March 16, 2003 at 3:00pm.