Imago Theatre's "ZooZoo" is a family holiday tradition in Portland. Classed as "mask" theater, which includes the costumes as well as the masks that cover the performers, the show is a series of skits in which animals bounce around, bump into each other, play games and generally goof around.
They do it with subtle movements as well as broad physical comedy (slapstick) and with a depth of emotion that reaches adults as well as children.
According to Imago's co-artistic director Jerry Mouawad, "ZooZoo" is a "best of" show. He and Carol Triffle started working on an animal mask show even before they founded Imago in 1982. It became "Frogz," which morphed into "Big Little Things."
"ZooZoo" is a combination of the two.
A cocked head, a slump, a pratfall, a nod, a hug, a pirouette — in mask, and especially in "ZooZoo" — can conjure up belly laughs, sadness, pity or fear, without a word being used. The animals are human, but not too human.
They include penguins playing musical chairs, hippos crowded on a bed, arrogant anteaters, frogs, human pyramid polar bears and upside-down human worms. The non-animals are wild accordions, a living paper bag and, near the end, the actors in skintight suits, acknowledging their humanity.
"It's survived because repeat audiences love to see it, because it's just delightful," Mouawad said. "It's also fantastical. And then people that have never seen it are all about the experience. It's like seeing creatures from a different perspective and seeing the human condition."
On a recent Tuesday evening the cast was rehearsing in Imago's space on Southeast Eighth Avenue, as they do every year. Imago puts on serious theater the rest of the year, using some of the "ZooZoo" performers, but the company excels at mask. Fiely Matias has been in the show on and off for 30 years and is also the rehearsal director, cracking the whip on the young performers.
"With every new performance, there are slightly new things that performers themselves bring in. It really is the same basic aesthetic, but it's also different, in the sense of who's performing it," said Matias.
Soloists can leave their stamp on a performance.
Laura Loy is a professional clown. She founded Box of Clowns — in the French tradition, not the white face — circus clown tradition. They make new works of physical theater. "We don't usually call them 'clown' these days, because people don't know what it means," Loy said.
She studied at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theater, in Blue Lake, California. Her initial training was in street theater, musicals and dance — then she went into physical theater and masks work.
"This is really physically demanding. Mask work is just hard, and you have to make it come alive, you have to be present the whole time. Because masks that aren't lived in look boring and dead onstage," Loy said.
Actors must understand the geometry of the mask, first by studying it in the mirror, to make it expressive.
"Like one of those penguins over there," Loy said, gesturing at a rack of penguin heads with curved beaks. "You can see it has a curve. And that really sharp point affects the way you move in it. You discover how you put that shape of the mask into your body." She said they don't much benefit from watching wildlife videos, because these animals have humans inside.
"They're not actually the same, but they have the same essence. And so, finding what the essential of that creature is, is tricky, and then adding character on top of that. It's a lot to kind of keep track of," said Loy.
She stretched out her cat legs on the floor, showing padded calves. "We get a lot of padding (for) the shape of the costumes, that does a lot of that work for us."
Trying to embody animal with just the human body is too hard. "I got something I call tortoise knee from pretending, because they move so strange with their knees in."
Her colleague Kaician Kitko has been touring the shows since 2014. "Sometimes when you get too focused on being like the animal, it's not very fun to watch," Kitko added.
"If you really wanted to see the animal, you'd go to Oregon Zoo," said Loy. The performers interact with the audience a lot but have their own movement grammar. For instance, they don't point with their fingers, but with a turn of the head.
Isaac Ellingson, an actor who majored in dance at Reed College, is understudying all the parts.
"I've always been interested in physical theater, the clowning side of performance. ('ZooZoo') is definitely something I've always thought would be cool to do."
He said there's not a lot of room for improvisation. The show is strictly choreographed, mainly because, in some of the masks, the performers can often only see the floor through the holes, and don't want to bump into each other.
"The polar bears can't really see much in front of them unless they look up, and then that breaks the illusion," said Ellingson. The main skill you need for ZooZoo, he says, is "A lot of spatial awareness, because you're in these massive clusters."
Ellingson added, "Primarily, it's just an ability to create a character through your body. Sometimes actors get comfortable in their head, and not much else. This actually keeps you on your toes in that way."
At rehearsal the performers stretched and chatted, mask heads off and waited for their photography cues. They wear leotards under the hot suits. Performer Mark Mullaney took a breather.
"We were doing tours until about 2017, when it started slowing down and the pandemic hit. And then we all just sat around, ate food and got out of shape for three years," Mullaney joked. The performer said they train hard. Ninety minutes in thick polyester, sometimes for two shows a day, is hard.
"We definitely get burning lungs, hopping around," Mullaney said of the frogs. "At some points, we're wearing four layers plus the penguin costume, which is like a walking mattress, basically."
"ZooZoo" and "Frogz" are steady work, one month a year.
"Pretty much everyone (in the cast) works at other theaters in town," Mullaney said. "Trying to be an actor in Portland, you've got to do everything. You gotta hit the pavement." Television and film work is hard to come by because it is usually cast in Los Angeles or New York beforehand for the main parts.
In Portland, Mullaney said, "I want to do the cool new stuff, which would be probably more Artists Repertory Theatre."
One thing Mullaney likes about ZooZoo is the mood.
"All you have to do is get your energy up and be happy. If you're doing Hamlet or something depressing, you have to bring yourself down. This is just, the more caffeine you have, the better, because you're entertaining kids, who have endless energy. We encourage them to yell and clap."
"ZooZoo" stages Dec. 9-Jan. 1, 2023 at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave. Tickets are $37.50, and $19.50 for under-16.
For more: onthestage.tickets/imago-theatre/individual-tickets
Masks are required.
The performers wear COVID masks in rehearsal when not in their animal masks, and the audience must mask up, too. The company cannot take a chance on losing anyone to illness in the lucrative holiday window.
"This is our first production that will bring in significant earned income from ticket sales since the pandemic shutdown. We were fortunate to keep open with Covid relief grants," Jerry Mouawad said.