The Adventures of Curious Ganz – Assembly Roxy

Directed by Sarah Wright

Words by Anna Maria Murphy

Puppetry offers a form to the imagination that few other mediums can capture. Benefiting from a physical dimension, it takes an edge over animation, cinema and lighting effects. It makes our dreams, our hopes, and even our nightmares, significantly tangible. The Adventures of Curious Ganz told with miniatures, string and rod puppets is an enchanting piece which delves into history, alchemy and the stars.

Curiosity is, like its sibling necessity, a catalyst of science, imagination and adventure. Glossing over the colonial aspects of exploration, Curious Ganz tells the tale of a small, nosy man who is never without his trusty magnifying glass. Setting out on the open ocean, or the deepest mines of Peru in search of something, anything, Ganz encounters a familiar royal who herself finds interest in the world beyond the River Thames.

From Queen Lizzy the First to the Duffers, and even a disgustingly adorable caterpillar, Sarah Wright’s lead set and puppet design from a team consisting of Lyndie Wright, Liz Walker, Alice King, Mae Voogd, Katie Williams & Luke Wood are exceptional. Basing their production on the life of copper smelter Joachim Gans, the ability to shift us from the universe’s beginning to the stench of old London seamlessly is a testament of their profession. Liz Walker, Avye Leventis/Nix Wood and Ailsa Dalling’s conduct a wealth of tales from their fingertips, straying from drama to comedy and into touching moments with ease.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be children’s theatre without some countermanding fear to balance the sickeningly charming characters. In his bid to stifle science and maintain his authority in the Queen’s court, the Prime Minister may have a small role but it showcases the inventiveness of the Little Angel Theatre. Defiant that the world is flat, the puppet of the Prime Minister looms over model earth, with a tiny boat heading towards the edge. As he warns of sea monsters, leviathans and beasts, enormous puppet creatures sway back and forth around him. Sharply crafting him, his features strike imposing shadows on the cold stone of the Assembly theatre.That’s the thing about ‘kid’s shows, in an audience with one child -there are many more adults- it’s evidence of our appetite for shows such as Curious Ganz.

Unfortunately, there is some incoherence with the narrative, which causes the imagination to come off the reigns. It leads to the climax feeling rushed, bombastically throwing a great deal at the audience, and when contrasted with the slow, simple opener as the universe evolves, seems heavy on visuals, and light on reserved storytelling.

Understandably, this eruption of creativity comes from a place of enthusiasm. Which is what you’ll find heaping’s off throughout Curious Ganz, passionate storytelling which stumbles on its coattails to showcase as much delightful puppetry as possible in the fifty-minute runtime. Offering a revised insight into historical discovery, with delightful puppets of all shapes and sizes, Little Angel Theatre and Silent Ride are alchemists of storytelling, spinning wood, plastic and string into gold.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-adventures-of-curious-ganz/

Strange Tales

Based on the stories by Pu Songling

Adapter: Ewan Macdonald

Written & Directed by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison

Our nightmares may be home to Kelpies, Redcaps and Banshees but for a different culture, who grew with the stories of Chinese writer Pu Songling, who five centuries ago wrote over five-hundred tales of demons, beasts and spirits, this is the fuel of their midnight imaginations. Join us in expanding your horizons of folklore but be careful not to stray far from the path of twilight, or these Strange Tales may claim you before the morning light.

Tying a creative meta to the narrative, as these tales are told, we come to realise that the deeper we delve into the heart of fantasy, the less likely we are to escape, enveloped, seduced by these spun tales of fox spirits, ghoulish lovers and small creatures living in our gaze. Just eight of Pu Songling’s stories are premiered for the first time on a British stage here in Edinburgh, but will any of the audience be able to sleep this evening?

Spearheading this revival, Grid Iron Theatre Company are offering more than a mere re-telling, instead, a conjuring of Songling’s creations. The stage of the Traverse is raised off the ground to intimately thrust directly into the audience. Karen Tennant’s set design offers quite enough detail to transport us to the humble settings of a storytellers canvas. Torn cloth, laden with symbols, drape into the crowds below, where one can’t help but feel a chill in tonight’s performance, despite the warmth of our hosts.

And luckily, we have three spinners of tales to safely guide us, well, we hope. Co-writing the premise, from Ewan MacDonald’s translation, Pauline Lockhart is the Scottish core of Strange Tales, bringing a rich humour, which is the most fluid of the three, though Robin Khor Yong Kuan brings a roguish charm to the antics. Performances vary, With Lockhart’s young lad from Paisley seeking the talents of ancient masters from the East a standout role, as is Luna Dai’s take on the antagonistic fortune teller. It is though, a combination of sleight of hand, magic and some finger puppets which captivates the audiences. As Khor Yong Kuan’s ‘Big Sneeze’ takes us intently out of reality and into the moment.

With a cacophony of stories, ghouls, effects and characters – it was bound to cause a tripping hazard. There’s an ounce too much, which unbalances the performance and stifles what should be a spectacular finale. In a twist to the parable, Lockhart confronts the three spirts of Paper, Clay and Light, previously shunning the warnings of delving too deep into these tales. The spirit of paper, another of Fergus Dunnet’s live effects is a strong start, but it is video design from Bright Side Studios which spellbindingly ties together the arts of modern technology and ancient storytelling.

That said, even with the power of the Light spirit, and impressive fight choreography from Philip Ho, it feels excessive in the closing act, as Pauline tosses and uses physical prowess, rather than wit or word, to evade the spirits. It seems to be acting against the general lessons, where many of the evil spirits are outwitted, only resorting to physical violence when cornered. Instead, here it feels shoehorned in, that with all the grandeur of puppets, visuals and tone, there was no way to write their way out of the scenario causing abrupt conclusions.

At its height, Strange Tales is sumptuous stage sorcery which places storytelling above all else and echoes a profound admiration for culture, narrative and theatre. This is a quintessentially traditional show for the festive period, it just so happens to be a tradition many here are unfamiliar with. Fusing a Chinese and Malaysian Chinese heritage with a Caledonian tongue, Strange Tales is a welcome addition to the world of folklore, a triumph of bracing theatre.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/strange-tales-traverse-theatre-edinburgh/

Photo Credit – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Tigers Are Not Afraid

Written & Directed by Issa López

Since the involvement of the Mexican government in 2006, the war on Drug cartels and trafficking have torn apart the cultural landscape of South America, surprisingly without much focus from many Western nations. With upwards of 160,000 recorded deaths, with many children being hidden on the fatality list, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (2017) blends together a mixture of spiritual folklore, horror and dramatic filmmaking to highlight the atrocity of reality, and how this Halloween ghosts and spectres are far tamer than the genuine monsters this world faces.

Flirting with the fantastical, writer and director Issa López has gone on to receive tremendous respect for her piece. A story of Estrella’s (Paola Lara) quest to find her mother, who has been snatched by drug-traffickers, leads to an encounter with a group of lost boys. Here, they steal, laugh and survive in a harsh city district, hiding from the Huascas, a drug cartel, after the boy’s leader Shine (Juan Ramón López) steals a cartel’s phone containing contacts, evidence and a few photos of the both Shine and Estrella’s mothers.

hero_tigers-are-not-afraid-movie-review-2019.jpg

Thankfully, López has the backbone to treat this horror with the required nerve, refusing to hide behind off-screen deaths. Anyone is fair game, a testament to the callousness of Mexico’s drug-feuds. Of course, though, the one person they would never suspect to hold the key, or rather the chalk, to foiling their plans, would be a woman, or better still, a young girl. Estrella receives three ‘wishes’ by her teacher, in a tear-inducing symbolic gesture of the weapon against the drug trade, and patriarchal fear – education.

“López has the backbone to treat this horror with the required nerve, refusing to hide behind off-screen deaths. Anyone is fair game, a testament to the callousness of Mexico’s drug-feuds.”

Arming herself with these wishes, Estrella’s performance from Paolo Lara is a part of the film’s success, with others being López’s concept and the character of Shine. A generic narrative of ‘careful what you wish for’ is in lew put the background, integral but not the focal point. Lara’s wishes result in fear-inducing events; the first, to have her mother return, brings the measure of horror forward. Lara is a natural, naïve but sturdy enough to stand against the boys, becoming a mother figure, in what is a thinly veiled reference of Peter Pan. Her back and forth with Shine, who so desperately wants to be the tiger he dresses is a relationship at the core of the film.

tigersnotafraid960.jpg

Symbolically, these tigers, these people who desire to move from their storybook princes into stealthy, majestic creatures are far from the animals they idolise. Splattering the streets of Mexico with graffiti, the Huascas are illustrated with claws, teeth and the slit eyes – when in reality, they are anything but. Shine’s ‘cowardice’ keeps him from earing these stripes. Shine himself, noting that as a ‘king of a fucked-up kingdom’ he cannot kill the man who stole his mother. This lack of assertive cruelty somehow equates to masculinity, communicating volumes to the film’s intention.

“Lara is a natural, naïve but sturdy enough to stand against the boys, becoming a mother figure, in what is a thinly veiled reference of Peter Pan.”

Mexico has a diverse, intense relationship with death, horror and the spiritual. Currently undergoing a renaissance of Horror movies, these films created by Latin filmmakers like López or producer Marco Polo Constandse have no fear of the genre like their American counterparts. It’s Spanish title, ‘Vuelven’ translates to ‘Return’, a rather literal, though relating title. As such, spirits exist in the between, making for superbly tense shots from Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography. Lingering, those who have suffered the Hollywood fake-out or jump scare will be unnerved by how silent this film can be, allowing an uncomfortable unease to do the work. As we close-in on shots, empty and grim, a small movement, or perhaps the sound effect is enough to push your eyes away.

film_tigers_are_not_afraid_2

Just as methodically unpleasant, Vicent Pope’s score is uncomfortable, but in that rare manner, only Horror can achieve. It works, you’re not put off by the design of the score, but there’s something which hazes your senses. Together, Pope and López capture the fear these children experience, just how open and vulnerable they are. Bleeding through our reality, folklore weaves around the film, keeping itself to the realm of shadowy imagination. It’s in effect how the blending of genres should work, neither takes a principle role, complimenting one another.

The fairy-tale gruesomeness never diminishes the realism, and the gritty drug-focused horror never detracts from the myth. Treating aspects of legend in reverence, similar to master of the craft Guillermo Del Torro, López’s sense of mystic is two-fold, an escape from the harsh monstrosities of reality and punishment for our antagonist. For the most part, the blending is sublime, a metaphorical sense of horror than a cheap sense of fright, but sadly one or two jump scares, and a peculiar revival of a stuffed animal draws us straight out of the immersion.

tigers.jpg

“Bleeding through our reality, folklore weaves around the film, keeping itself to the realm of shadowy imagination. It’s in effect how the blending of genres should work, neither takes a principle role, complimenting one another.”

Generalizing a complex social-political issue, López seems unsure of where to draw her focus. Aware to place the children at the heart of the narrative, with the supernatural enveloping the surrounding darknesses, it leaves little room for physical antagonists in the form of The Huascas or Chino, though Ianis Guerrero provides a marvellous climax alongside Lara and Ramon López as the spiritual horror kicks in a gear or two, with a repulsive, somehow sickeningly satisfying punishment for the human-trafficker. ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ continues Mexico’s history of tremendous pieces of horror, an example of Hispanic – Latina cinema’s continuing trend to take the chances Hollywood fears to gamble on.

Review originally published for In Their Own League