Calvino Nights review – irresistible theater that sharpens the senses | Theater
Oonce upon a time? What a tedious way to start a story, say the cast of this irresistible new show from Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd, his first since the mighty Cornish theater company disbanded last summer. Before it even begins, Calvino Nights has pyrotechnics and flags, music and dancing, with actors prowling the crowd trying to rip us off. They are modern versions of Crack, Crook and Hook, the shrewd trio whose disappointments are retold in the Italo Calvino collection of Italian folk tales that inspired the evening. “We are thieves, we are thieves, we are thieves”, they chant loudly. To make it clear: “We steal stuff!”
In Shepherd’s show – co-directed with Elayce Ismail and co-written with Carl Grose, Anna Maria Murphy and Tim Dalling – it’s as if the stories slowly blossom among the cast, just as the set seems to have grown to from the ground. Ladders are intertwined with branches in a pyre decorated with weathered instruments and carvings of animal heads. Inside, a live band is celebrating. Any show held outdoors, on top of a cliff, Minack has instant atmosphere – the backdrop is the Atlantic Ocean – but Calvino Nights makes full use of the setting. It is the theater that sharpens the senses.
You might expect one of Calvino’s collected sea stories to feature prominently in the patchwork of the script, but other elements dominate. The show’s fire master, Paka Johnson, wields fiery instruments, orchestrates bursts of flame as musical accompaniment and at one point sets the stage on fire, underlining Caitlin Kaur’s dark, melancholy vocals.
Kaur plays The Wife Who Lived on Wind, whose air-eating habit appeals to a skin mogul (Dalling in handsome comic book form). Calvino’s miser was a prince at Messina; here, he becomes a smoothing gazillionaire with an Elon Musk-esque obsession with Mars. The story is combined with that of the evil soup seller Mama Cook (the brilliant Bea Holland) who has a son the size of a chickpea, leading to a rather prolonged escapade about a rocket flight, but clearly pointing out that greed and exploitation are not the prerogative of the mega-rich.
The show, like the popular tales collected by Calvino, also stems from a very real awareness of poverty. Mama Cook’s refusal to come to the aid of a band of travelers gains relevance by the way they emerge as ocean migrants. Among the cast is Girum Bekele, a talented puppeteer and circus artist who arrived in Calais from Eritrea and joined the Good Chance ensemble in the “Jungle” refugee camp.
This compassionate show wears his heart on his sleeve (and on Shepherd’s chest: he’s sporting a “make love, not war” t-shirt). He also has a keen sense of political outrage. The characters are searching for their moral compasses — and they’re not alone, observes Shepherd.
The moral of these stories could afford to be more discreet, but the staging is often striking. String and rod puppets enrich the characters of Pete, Mama Cook and Calvino himself (also portrayed by Shepherd) and a huge puppet emerges at the climax, with wings made of twisted roots, its reproving gaze softening with a slight turn of the head. Lucy Seaber and Ruth Shepherd’s costumes include mix ‘n’ match track tops and black kilts, which allow the performers’ scratches and tattoos to become part of the show’s aesthetic. The band, led by musical director Alex Lupo, hits with the force of a crashing wave, and everyone on stage – including puppeteer Sarah Wright – juggles multiple roles, even flaming bowling.
Presented by the Minack and impossible Producing, it’s a bountiful night that deserves a longer life. Calvino would surely have approved: his collection is inspired by the Tuscan proverb “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it”. It is nothing if not beautiful.