La Compagnie du Hanneton’s latest show The Toad Knew packed Chicago Shakespeare’s Yard, Chicago’s brand new theater on Navy Pier. People came to see this 90-minute captivating and morose fairy tale that blended Thierrée’s dada-esque vision with an Oscar Wilde-cum-Dickensian steampunk aesthetic. The entire production has a dreamlike quality, from the lush and alive seeming velvet curtain to the bizarrely anthropomorphized apparatus and rigging that expanded, shook, twirled and contracted to allow a sort of fairy spider with a heart light to descend occasionally to interact with the humans. Of course, she may have been just one of the human gang, because The Toad Knew leaves a lot up to individual interpretation, a fact which some theater-goers were visibly not at ease with. It was the show’s weakness as well as its strength. The Toad Knew’s form, both playful and dark, depended on motion to portray character, but the spongy plot-line left a few audience members who were unaccustomed to this challenge of preconceptions confounded enough to wander away–which was distracting. For the rest of us, stunned in our seats, vacillating often between laughter and awe, what came across loud and clear in Thierrée’s story and performance was the perfect blend of poignancy and comedy. Contemporary dance mingled with new magic, while integrating physical theater and circus that somehow transcended the sum of its parts—a feat that many have often tried with less success.
The dance numbers were exquisitely bizarre blends of modern movement and acrobatics with a whole lot of popping and locking (and even some whacking by the amazing Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim). When they weren’t dancing, they were throwing out the gags and the mime, but in such an ingrained way, pointing to their relationships and quirks rather than to the act or the gesture itself, unless of course the moment called for a guffaw. Hervé Lassïnce and Samuel Duterte are the perfect vaudeville sidekicks, adding brawn and bravado to Thierrée’s more sensitive and nuanced character.
The music has a classical influence and was composed by Thierrée himself, who is also an accomplished musician. It featured the lovely voice and mysterious presence of Ofélie Crispin whose style is lyrical and poetically reminiscent of Bjork.
The standout moments of physical theater most often occurred when Thierrée leaned on tradition, taking a small clown moment and exploring it until absurdity emerged, and then taking it even further. When his hair continues to fall in his face throughout the show, he goes from using hairspray on it (and on anything within 50 yards) to trying to staple it down– and ultimately resorting to a hairband, which he manages to trap his own hands in, causing a cascade of beautiful hand action. Each move throughout the show is intricately explored like this, often to hilarious end but also sometimes exposing a manic, obsessive root that smacks of humanity.
It is those tiny moments that make the show most alive, but it is also the amplitude of the gestures, the group dynamics between the siblings as their bizarre world somehow reveals familiar themes like longing for attention, contemplativeness, awe at the supernatural and even frustration over a piano with a mind of its own. Even the new magic that appears in the show is seamlessly intertwined with the action. Sometimes it comes off as a funny gag and sometimes it happens so nimbly that only the eagle-eyed will catch it. Add to that large props in puppetry and bizarre magical steampunk technology that begs for acrobatic skill displays, and you have yourself a riveting show that defies category.
The Toad Knew plays at the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare September 19-23, before moving on to Montreal’s La Tohu on September 30-October 7. Tickets at the Yard range from $38-$88.