nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 10, 2005
Dennis, the restless little boy seated behind me at the New Victory Theater's presentation of Luna/Penguin, hit the nail on the head when the show was over: "Is that it?"
After a 25-minute first act, a 20-minute intermission, and a 25-minute second act—only ten minutes of which features the animated penguin that is the show's clear drawing card—it was hard not to feel disappointed by this dour, spare show. Filip Bral, the composer/musician who is the artistic director and founder of Pantalone, the company responsible for this show, brings minimalism to an extreme with his plodding, anti-melodic scores for the three tales comprising the bill. The children who made up at least half of the audience at the performance I attended were pretty patient during the first one; but after intermission, they were noisy and listless, and I couldn't say that I blamed them.
"Luna of the Tree," the first piece, is a fairy tale about a magic tree that grows golden apples. When the youngest of the King's three sons plays his flute beneath the tree, he brings forth Luna, the ephemeral sprite who picks the apples each day. He falls in love with her and eventually embarks on a quest to find her. It's a sweet, moral story, but on the rambling side; it's narrated enthusiastically by Davis Freeman, who sits center stage before a nine-piece chamber orchestra that plays Bral's dull accompaniment. Behind, on two screens, are animated projections of illustrations by Gerda Dendoven. There's nothing wrong with any of this, but nothing terribly interesting or theatrical about it, either: my impression was of a great deal of fuss for a very minor story.
The second part of the show consists of two tales. The first, "Small Story About Love" by Marit Tornqvist, is a rather bleak fable about a girl who lives alone on a pole in the middle of the sea, and what happens to her after a passing sailor suddenly smiles at her (it's not happy). For this piece, Freeman and four of the musicians are on hand, seated around a shallow pool of water that covers most of the stage—they're all barefoot, but they otherwise don't interact in any way with their surroundings. Bral plays percussion on a host of instruments including chimes, a gong, and, at one point, a water goblet; I was more engaged watching him make the various sounds required by this story, but was disappointed that he didn't make all of them—recorded or otherwise offstage sound effects supply a lot of the bigger and louder noises here.
"My Heart is a Penguin" concludes the program. Written and illustrated by Chihara Sakazaki and "arranged" by Bart Moeyaert (the author of "Luna and the Tree"), this very slight tale is about a boy who says that his heart is a penguin. And that's pretty much all there is to it. I was ready to go wherever this unusual metaphor wanted to take me (the program notes promise a "minimalist philosophical poem... steeped in Asian philosophy")—but the piece goes absolutely nowhere. After about ten minutes of this spare verse, accompanied by meagerly animated line drawings of a penguin and another of Bral's uninspiring compositions, the thing is over. Ergo Dennis.
A company representative cautioned me before the show that some of the sets and materials had gotten lost trans-Atlantic, and so what we were seeing was not exactly the show Pantalone intended. (I'm not aware that a similar caveat was issued to general audience members.) One number was cut. Presumably, if the missing parcel surfaces, Luna/Penguin will be restored to its longer and slightly niftier original form. However, I doubt that this will make much difference in terms of the show becoming more engaging or entertaining. The New Victory, generally so reliable a source of excellent theatre for families, has unfortunately come a cropper with this one.