>dancing with dragons by i theatre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 15 nov 2003
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: agf theatre, alliance francaise
>rating: **1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Director Brian Seward certainly knows how to put on a show for the kids. In fact, it was almost as if he had a list that he was ticking off. Masks? Check. Colourful costumes? Check. Grown-ups doing animal impersonations? Check. Five teenagers from Australia? Oops. Never mind, we have Too Too Moo and the Giant instead. The kids won't know the difference!

DANCING WITH DRAGONS, a playful romp through nine folktales from around the Asia-Pacific region, certainly kept the kids in the audience happy for a good 70 minutes, no easy feat as many a tired parent will tell you. The slapstick humour and interactive elements, in particular, went down a storm. The theatre was filled with laughter and shrieks of excitement when the actors moved around the auditorium as foraging animals or sprayed water at the audience to simulate a rainstorm.

(And it is this "live" element that I believe is the quality of drama - versus, say movies or television - that it is good for young children to be exposed to. If nothing else, it makes them realise that there is a person under that Barney costume and they should perhaps be a bit more careful when they go charging headlong at Barney's stomach in a departmental store.)

My reservation, though, was whether the kids, most of whom looked to be primary or pre-primary school-goers, really understood what was going on in the stories. The parent behind me had to recount the entire play to her child although it is to the credit of the production that the kid was nonetheless at least engaged enough to keep asking about it. The vocabulary and narrative structures of some of the stories were evidently pitched a little above Boy Boy's capabilities, methinks, and one wonders what he actually got out of it at the end of the day. So if a secondary objective of the production was to educate and not just entertain, then one fears that the kids in the audience will all end up as nose-picking, bottom-scratching, belching and burping barbarians, missing out as they did on important lessons about responsibility, consequences and selflessness.

Oh well, they can just read 'Chicken Soup For The Soul' when they are older, I guess.

>>'Children's theatre is notoriously difficult to do because you need to sustain the interest of a young and over-active mind so kudos to I Theatre for doing that. I just wish the adults could have been entertained too.'

So far so good. The kids are happy. But what about those of us who are old enough to realise that a dragon wanting a human wife is actually tantamount to bestiality? (Gasp! How on earth did that slip past the censors? I'm writing a letter to my MP!)

I'm afraid to say, there simply wasn't much to sustain my interest. Sure, all the stories were simplistic, predictable and formulaic and you could guess the endings after one line but hey, these are folktales. You expect that (especially that everything-has-to-be-done-three-times malarkey). I'm cool with it. But in other areas, I'd expected more. The physical movements, for example, when imitating animals were adequate, yes, but straight out of a textbook - and a primary school drama textbook, at that. That's fine, you may say, because the target audience is primary school kids. But really, it's not. The audience may be school-goers but I don't expect the cast to be school-going in their execution.

In fact, the cast showed their relative inexperience as theatre practitioners in quite a few places throughout the night. Fumbled lines are one thing, but occasionally, the younger actors would be thrown by the audience and actually break out of character. At other times, conversely, they totally blanked out the audience and delivered their lines as if they were more concerned about having said the lines than whether the lines were actually being listened to.

Other aspects of the production lacked sophistication and thought too; for example, Chinese gong-fu costumes and… funky black cross-trainers? And really, isn't using gamelan music whenever you need to conjure a rural or forest ambiance totally over-used?

Of course, for all that, I am not the target audience. And ultimately I believe that DANCING WITH DRAGONS was wholly successful in entertaining the kids and helping to nurture in them a love for stories. Children's theatre is notoriously difficult to do because you need to sustain the interest of a young and over-active mind, so kudos to I Theatre for doing that.

I just wish the adults could have been entertained too, which is not as impossible as it sounds - think of 'Finding Nemo', 'Spirited Away', and The Little Theatre's 'Prospero's Children' - scenes from which I still think about a year later.

Imagine being inspired like that as a child the way I have been as an adult!