Family entertainment doesn't have to mean mush. The Denver Center Theatre Company began the year with a smart, edgy Peter Pan and followed it with a poignant Christmas Carol, an inventive Comedy of Errors and a delightful Life With Father. Now the DCTC is finishing up the family-fare portion of its season with Fables, a luscious experimental piece by those masters of the theatrical bizarre, Pavel Dobrusky and Per-Olav Sorensen. Weirdly funny and more challenging than most family shows, Fables takes folk tales from around the world and connects them in unexpected ways. A multifaceted cast with a multicultural heritage interprets the stories without sanitizing them, a la folklorist Joseph Campbell, and the result is quite a change from Disney.
The show opens with a gifted clown, Peter Daniel, climbing over audience members to get to the stage, where he yanks an "unsuspecting lawyer" (Bruce Turk) onto the stage and turns him into a tortoise. He finds a gymnastic hare in his trunk, and the race is on. Just then dozens of other characters interrupt to offer variations on the classic tale, drawn from cultures around the world. As the full company converges on the stage, the story of the tortoise and the hare gives way to dozens of other stories.
On the surface, some of the tales might seem like strong stuff for little kids. Take, for example, the East Indian fable about a giant crab who kills and eats elephants, only to get its comeuppance when the elephants are liberated and stomp the crustacean to mincemeat. It is told by a lovely Indian woman (Yolande Bavan) with a soft, persuasive voice and accent. The moral of the story, never underscored, is about divine protection against evil.
This tale is followed by a charming Jewish story about a man who lives in a tiny house with a squabbling wife and mother-in-law. He goes to a holy man to ask for advice. The holy man tells him to bring his sheep into the house, and things get more crowded and nastier. So the holy man advises him to bring in the chickens. Things get worse yet. Finally the holy man tells him to bring in the donkey. Now things are so crowded and so awful that when the holy man finally advises him to remove the animals, the house now feels as large as a palace. The actors do not need to beat you over the head with the fact that things can always be worse. Wisdom underlies all of these tales.
The stories can be dark: A lion who falls in love with a human woman and gives up his claws loses both the woman and his power; a man who leaves his wife and son for another woman--really a fox in disguise--comes to a pathetic end. An Eskimo tale pits an Odysseus-like hero against ghosts, vampires and demons.
Stories like this one may need explaining to younger children--especially the sensitive ones--but older kids will enjoy the mystery and wonder of it all. And Dobrusky and Sorensen wisely follow the ghostly Eskimo tale (stylized and elegant as it is) with a really funny ghoul known as the Spoon Monster. The Spoon Monster rises out of the lagoon (a tank built into the set), sits on an unwary child, salts and peppers the kid's big toe, and pulls out a spoon to eat it with. The child pipes up--"Watch out for my big toe, it might eat you"--and the silly monster runs off.
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It's all done with lavish foolery and good wit. Some of the tales do have implied sexual content, though nothing too objectionable. Anyone who has read myths, folk and fairy stories knows that they cover the range of human experience--including sex and death. And some stories from other cultures are bound to feel strange to an American audience--but then, that's part of the point.
Dobrusky and Sorensen, a Czech and a Norwegian who produce one show a year for the DCTC, use the talents of their extraordinary cast to provide some new thrill every few minutes. Like their other experimental work, this play had no script to begin with. The directors chose their performers for their skills and knowledge, and the whole company created the work out of thin air, old stories and their own souls.
There are a few problems, especially with the transitions, and some of the stories don't fit as well as others. But in spite of its flaws, Fables brings wonderful stories to life. It delights the imagination and leaves viewers just a little goofy with the joy of it all.
Fables, through June 15 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.