Humanizing hippos

Biglittlethings

This rabbit represents “a smorgasbord of vaudevillian pieces that reflect on the human condition by bringing to life animals and inanimate objects."OK.

This rabbit represents “a smorgasbord of vaudevillian pieces that reflect on the human condition by bringing to life animals and inanimate objects."OK.

A hippo, an anteater and a polar bear walk onto a stage. Sounds like the setup for a joke, right? Nope—it’s Biglittlethings, a show by Imago Theatre incorporating music, dance and human-sized animals in unexpected ways.

Biglittlethings began in 2001 in a series of laboratory experiments with actors that explored everything from water to fish to giant feet moving to tiny Martians,” says Jerry Mouawad by e-mail from Portland, Ore., where Imago Theatre is based. Mouawad co-created and co-directs the show along with Carol Triffle. Their previous project, FROGZ, appeared on Broadway in 2001 and 2002.

“What ultimately resulted,” Mouawad says, “is a smorgasbord of vaudevillian pieces that reflect on the human condition by bringing to life animals and inanimate objects.” The show’s appeal, he says, springs from the human tendency to anthropomorphize—seeing human qualities in non-human things. The play has raccoons breaking out of jail, rabbits hitchhiking and dinosaurs wrestling.

“Humans look at everything, and we see ourselves—whether real [or] animated animals,” says Mouawad.

So what can audiences expect to see and hear at the show? “It’s like going to the zoo, the circus and another planet all in one,” explains Mouawad. “It’s impossible to describe in words because it’s physical and visual. It’s highly comedic, highly visually stimulating. It’s appealing for a wide age range, but it has levels of sophistication that appeal to adults.”

Mouawad says the show includes six performers wearing animal costumes that range from a “small” five-foot insect to a giant 25-foot dinosaur. The costumes are fanciful rather than realistic: the rabbits wear striped shirts and overalls, and an anteater is likely to show up in a waiter’s uniform. “When designing the mask[s], we’re playing on anthropomorphic design,” says Mouawad. “How is a hippo like a human? What happens when a hippo can’t sleep? Is the insomnia of a hippo the same as a human? These thoughts go through us as we design.”

This spirit of playfulness and whimsy extends to the choreography as well. “Every show is different,” says Mouawad. “The performers have exact choreography, but the work we do is about staying and being in the moment. If something happens unexpectedly, the performers play on that—it’s spontaneous and alive.”

The music is developed by Imago’s composer Katie Griesar. “We collaborate with [Griesar] in a long process,” says Mouawad. “Some pieces have been in development for five years. So, if we rewrite a piece, she changes and adapts the music. The movement and sound evolve together.”

If you’re still having trouble envisioning what Biglittlethings might look like (including those insomniac hippos), selected video clips are available at www.biglittlethings.com/videos.shtml. Don’t miss the “Fish” video—a graceful aerial ballet in which blacklight-illuminated fish puppets swoop and swirl across the stage, racing, chasing and even devouring each other.

Although the show is family-friendly, Mouawad says it’s intended for all ages. “It’s not a children’s show, but children love it.” Still, he hopes it resonates with everyone. “I hope they take away what I always take away from any work of art. It becomes part of your life … you look back on it and think, I’m glad to be alive because through art I find inspiration, depth and richness.” And, occasionally, a giant rabbit or two.