PORTLAND, ORE.: In 1979, Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad were two twentysomethings studying the transformative nature of masks under physical-theatre guru Jacques Lecoq. Triffle and Mouawad soon began experimenting with their own masks, and they shared their work with their artist friends, which included a few movement artists. This eventually led them to create FROGZ, a now world-renowned show, which returns tonight to the company they founded the same year, Imago Theatre.
“We were young and did not completely understand the depth of the possibilities of such a form, but we pursued it because it was a strong element for performance,” says Mouawad, who directs and designs shows at Imago. “What we learned from mask theatre we later applied to scripted plays, adaptations of classics and original work without masks from 1989 to the present.”
FROGZ began as just a simple series of pieces back in 1979. Six years later, the show was touring internationally. By 2000, it had played a limited run in New York at the New Victory Theatre, and over this past year alone stopped in Canada, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
In the 35 years the show has been playing, 50 to 60 different creators have contributed to the work, two composers have written music for it and 40 to 50 total cast members have inhabited its world. The show really has no storyline, unless you can see narrative in the effect of gravity on critters or dancing accordions. Instead, FROGZ uses the movement of five dancers dressed as animals to portray human emotions, which is not always an easy task.
“We have created more than six hours of material over 25 years, and in that time, there was much cutting, adding and changing until the show was finalized in 2002,” Mouawad says. “To create a new piece, which may be only 5 to 12 minutes, could take anywhere from six months to six years. To reach a universal theatrical experience that appeals to 99 percent of the world’s audiences takes a lot of trial and error, and the ability to see what works and doesn’t.”
The show takes its title from the opening segment, in which several performers dressed as frogs create an acrobatic dance by hopping one over the other and stacking on top of each other. They are then followed by a family of penguins waddling onstage, and possibly into the laps of a few audience members if given the chance.
These tricks have been compared to the likes of Cirque du Soleil, and indeed their intricacies of FROGZ‘s movements can take a performer a good year to master in rehearsal and performance, Mouawad explains. But not every piece, no matter how well rehearsed, makes its way into the 90-minute show. Mouawad says that the show’s warehouse space is now home to many creatures that never saw the glimmer of stage lights because the right slot in the show could not be found.
Its combination of animals and acrobatics means that FROGZ resonates with both kids and adults, and its universal, nonverbal content means it can play as well in Taipei as in Chicago or Cairo.
“Life is unexpected and fun in ways that are impossible to realize unless you see it in an unusual live performance,” Mouawad says. “Lucky for us, FROGZ is one of them.”