Artichoke Heart Collective is a Toronto based theatre group that primarily specializes in puppetry for its shows. To kick off my 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival I went and saw Cirqular at the Tarragon Extra Space. The Fringe Festival is not juried and anyone who wins the festival’s lottery can produce a play. Due to this format you really never know what to expect when you see a show. Word of mouth is king as patrons run across town for two weeks trying to find the most creative and interesting shows.
I knew going in to Cirqular that it was a puppet show, but that was all the information I had. Entering the Tarragon Extra space I was struck by the intricacy of the set. There were three specific set pieces, on stage right was a table with watches and a clock, in the middle was a beautiful papier-mâché tree with a cuckoo clock in it and on stage left was another table with a nest and a tiny tea set. Everything was brown and gold creating a very earthy feel. With all the little props it made the stage feel full but also a sense of minimalism was created.
With only three puppeteers/actors on stage the work was cut out for them to play multiple characters. Co-creator and producer Michelle Urbano acted alongside Talia Delcogliano and Aisha Bentham deftly handling the same roles between them. The play did not feature any dialogue but instead noise, grunts and verbal cues were used instead. Urbano excelled at making the audience understand her characters with fantastic sound effects.
The plot of the play is a bit hard to describe in a traditional sense as it is more based in emotions and moments than scenes and structure. The show started out with a shadow play vignette showing a tale of an old lady and a snail like creature that used to be close then something caused them to split up. The cuckoo clock in the middle of the set is wound up everyday by the old lady and it seems to keep her alive. A large egg falls from the sky and a very skeletal like bird hatches and becomes the audiences surrogate for the show. The bird explores the world that is created with confusion much like the audience is watching in wonder. Other characters include a ‘dog-like’ creature that scavengers found items, a nosey woman with a large clock face and eyelashes and a supervisor who belittles the bird to work quicker when employed by the old lady.
The set pieces and world that was created reminds me of two different inspirations. There was an old Ikea commercial years ago where an old table lamp is thrown out and left on the side of the street, while sad music is playing and rain is falling hard we pity this presumably useless lamp. At the end of the commercial a narrator pops up and asks why we are feeling sorry for the lamp, it was just an intimate object. The second inspiration I had watching this was an animated short that won an Oscar last year called “Mr. Hublot”, a piece where these robot like creatures are made up of clocks and other gadgets and gears but they act just like regular humans. The found objects used by Urbano and co-creator/director Tijiki Morris makes you feel so much towards them, even if they are just inanimate objects.
To add to this world creating that is done in the theatre, the group has Sam Bergmann-Good playing music live on stage while the action is going on. He has a computer and keyboard set up to create and mix live while the action is going on. He doesn’t play traditional music but instead helps create the atmosphere and provide sound effects for the action. There is a great moment when all three puppeteers are working the bird as it is trying to learn to walk and Bergmann-Good plays a note every time it takes a step.
While I felt the play lacked a clear voice of its intentions, the imagery and masterful puppetry is worth admission alone. For 50-minutes you are transported to a world where snails drink tea, repurposed telephones and clocks became characters you empathize with and a mysterious bird learns about life. I don’t think dialogue would have enhanced the show, in fact I think it would take away from the charm but some clearer plotting about the relationship between the old lady and the snail would have been helpful. They repeated the shadow vignette at the end of the show, which cleared up a bit of the plot thankfully (plus seeing the incredibly detailed and tiny slides again was great).
Speaking with Urbano after the show, she told me that she liked the idea that everyone can take what they want out of the show, projecting their own selves and characters into the thick of it. The Fringe is great for groups like Artichoke Heart Collective where the odd and interesting can shine. For more information please see their website or go to any Fringe Festival venue.