Return Of The Trouts
Calgary’s mighty puppet masters return to the Globe
by Stephen LaRose
THE TOOTH FAIRY
A couple of months ago, my son lost his first two baby teeth. If you’re a parent, you know the ritual. A night or two later, the child eagerly goes to sleep, waiting for the Tooth Fairy to arrive and leave behind a loonie or a toonie for his efforts. Perfectly and totally innocent. At least, you’d think it was.
Except, in the hands of the Calgary-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop, the story becomes darkly comic, if not downright disturbing.
Think of it, says the show’s director, Pete Balkwill. This involves baby teeth, something from the mouth of the most innocent of all — a child. And you’re, in effect, selling it. You’re selling a part of a child’s innocence. Putting the money a child receives for the tooth into a savings account is the first step into the adult economy of work, sales, and money. And for what? What does the tooth fairy do with all those baby teeth, anyway?
And yet … how far should you go to defend a child’s innocence? Baby teeth don’t last forever.
Whether you’re five or 95, it’s not likely you thought about that while reading through those months-old Peoples and Sports Illustrateds while waiting at the dentist’s office. But it’s pretty clear the Old Trout Puppet Workshop spent more than five minutes thinking about the place of tooth fairy mythology in our society (which was more than five minutes longer than the Disney executives who green-lighted a movie of the same name (released last winter), which continued the slow, inexorable descent of Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson’s career).
Regina audiences will definitely remember the Trout from two previous visits here. The first was the esoteric The Last Supper Of Antonin Carême in 2004, about the strange life and secrets of the father of French cuisine. Their other show here, in 2006, was Famous Puppet Death scenes, a series of vignettes about mortality alternating between funny, tragic and profound. I didn’t see it, but I know people who, years later, still won’t shut up about how amazing it was.
The Tooth Fairy was spawned in the early days of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop (founded in 1999), says Balkwill. Old Trout is an artists’ collective specializing in puppet theatre, but whose members have dabbled in other forms of artistic pursuits, including books (they’ve published five children’s books, including two that were shortlisted for the Governor General’s Awards), music videos (they’ve performed on one with Feist) and short films.
The Tooth Fairy, which the theatre company has taken on tour this spring, was their second-ever original production.
“One of the guys had the idea for a kids’ book, and when he described the idea to us, we thought this was a great idea for a play,” says Balkwill in a telephone interview from Calgary. “We started to create the stage of the story in tandem with him writing the story. The two things — the book and the play — kind of co-created each other.”
The story concerns a little girl named Abigail, who is so inordinately proud of her teeth that the Canadian Dental Association’s probably backstage contemplating force-feeding her Mars bars to shut her up. She and her teeth are zealously defended from the Tooth Fairy by her grandfather, who, haunted by his own past, is going mad. One day, Abigail decides to battle the Tooth Fairy, leaving her grandfather’s perfect world. Except that she’s an innocent: not ready for a world of cynicism, exploitation and despair.
She barrels through the arctic wastes and dense woods to fight the dreaded fang-stealer, but by the time she gets to the Tooth Fairy’s castle, she finds her grandfather dying in the woods, and she’s lost a tooth.
This leads to the inevitable question. The play deals with serious subjects, albeit in a childlike and humorous (at times) way: think of Where the Wild Things Are, as done by Samuel Beckett.
How appropriate is the play for children? The play deals with stuff like death and violence, and a sea monster as large as the stage.
“We say it’s appropriate for those who have lost a tooth and older,” Balkwill says. “Initially we developed the show for adults, and then pulled it back a little bit … but we still kept a bit of an edge. We wanted to preserve the notion that this (losing baby teeth) is a turning point for kids. It’s their introduction into physiological change — a journey into adulthood.
“And it’s interesting to note that transference is celebrated in our culture by the trading of innocence for money. Money is the beginning of the embracing the rigors of adulthood, which is the working of your entire life to make a living.”
Easy enough for him to say, especially if your own process to grownup-hood has had a rocky start.
“Back in the day, we as a group, it’s hard to know if we graduated from that philosophical quandary,” says Balkwill. “We used to sit around and ponder the great philosophical questions of life, in contrast to the fact that we were trying as hard as we could to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood.”
The play is also aided by an imaginative set design, in which the props on stage convert from a cottage to a boat to a forest with the greatest of ease.
And we shouldn’t neglect the puppets — most of which are actually hooded masks over the actors’ heads.
On first glance, it’s hard to decide whether The Tooth Fairy is fish or fowl. Adult plays about adult subjects aren’t usually the topics of puppet shows, which are associated with children’s entertainment. Especially when the puppet show features dancing trees, pirates, and sailors.
But The Tooth Fairy deals with adult issues in a way that will entertain children and doesn’t talk down to them. So, is it children’s theatre? The only real response is: who cares? Does the play work as theatre, first and foremost? And that’s for you to find out.
If it didn’t work as a dramatic structure, The Tooth Fairy wouldn’t have had a life expectancy longer than … a child’s baby teeth, for example.