March 7-17, 2009 was Singapore’s International Festival for Children. This was the 10th year of the Festival and the aim is to provide the children with as much variety as they could to “positively develop an arts culture” among its kids. Hence there is puppetry, shadow play, object manipulation, songs, storytelling, electroacoustic music among its repertoire – from international artists worldwide. There are performers from Canada, Australia, Belgium, England, Spain, Scotland who happen to be performing.
Our absolute favorite was, as the title shows, The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy. Well, this is my choice. I am sure Caela enjoyed The Storyteller (performed by Canadians with a very interactive approach with their asking volunteer kids from the audience to play certain parts in their scenes) far better.
What was riveting about Cheeseboy is the ability of the narrator to create a dark gothic universe where a cheese fondue becomes a burnt planet and an orphaned cheeseboy discovers two gypsies (a couple who is both astronomer and astrologer) in a caravan, ultimately becoming his second family.
The witticism of the writer was evident (alongside the perfect sense of timing of the sole actor/narrator) with the justification that cheeseboy can eat bree without necessarily being a cannibal since humans could also eat meat (so long as its not of their own kind). And of course the 90-second interval where they managed to perform a juggling act, solve a crossword puzzle and a seemingly-myriad of other activity besides – all in less than 2 minutes.
The haunting and strange melody sung in a foreign female voice on certain parts of the play add to the dramatic and tragical message that you have to find your own home within you and hold your own hand. It seems more like a coming-of-age tale rather than strictly a child’s play. It has a much deeper message. It is indeed a story about self-discovery and the joy of exploring one’s inner strengths – allowing Cheeseboy to finally be set free in the end – soaring and being at one with the moon who controls the tides (and makes people do foolish things such as falling in love, as the actor said).
While it also uses projectors and shadow plays and modern technology, it still has an old-fashioned-almost-celtic element to it that erases any aspect of modernity. The wooden treasure boxes, the coraline-and-gaiman-like illustrations, the cramped little black box where the venue was held (yes we were in a black box) with wooden benches as your seats with just yellow lamps as our lights – transformed the setting into a surreal carnival-esque moment where gypsies with pharaoh scarves and orphaned cheeseboys roam the earth – sending letters in the form of red paper boats in vain attempts to find the long-gone-and-dead parents. Actually reminded me of the eerie HBO mini-series Carnivale without the sinister evil-is-good components of course. It still is, after all, a child’s play.
We also watched Allenby’s Famous Flea Circus which we felt was a rip-off. Not even 30 minutes long (possibly 25 minutes or even less), the grandfatherly magician host with the sequined top hat merely performed hand tricks which Tatay and Tito Mark have already demonstrated to Little Ela. While there were vain attempts to be comical (what time does the 330 show begin?) it felt contrived and tired. He makes you believe that fleas are performing outstanding feats (ala Emperor’s New Clothes) when in fact the fleas do not exist at all. So from an adult’s vantage, it all just seemed stupid, moot, and pointless. Like insulting the children’s intelligence. We felt cheated essentially.
Alice is an adaptation of the famous Alice in Wonderland (yes, we watched four shows in all). However, it was too high-tech with the 3-d projection, electroacoustic music, sound and kaleidoscopic manipulation of images that the story got lost in all the techno stuff. The plot was fragmented, disjointed, without any form of continuity whatsoever. It was a little exciting in the beginning since it was like.. whoa.. this is something new.. and high-tech.. and weird. Then after awhile, without the plot density, everything just seemed to be everywhere, cut into little pieces and thrown into the air by some techno-madwoman’s not-too-ingenious design. In short, we slept through the latter part.
However, cheeseboy with its eerie elements is definitely a 5-star for me. The Story Teller, 4 stars. Alice and the Flea Circus, both blah.