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The stage is simply set with two tin shacks, one representing a house, the other a barn. As a narrator tells the story of young Maurice and his only friend, the actor's own arm becomes a goose named Teeka. From this seemingly whimsical premise, darkness soon emerges: Maurice pulls the wings off flies; he is beaten by his unseen parents. How will he treat Teeka?

This is The Tale of Teeka, perhaps Canada's most successful work of children's theatre, a celebrated Quebec export that has been performed more than 400 times in 12 countries in four languages and won the Governor-General's Award in 1993. After recent tours to France and California, it now returns to Toronto for the third time in its 10-year history, opening Toronto's 20th annual Milk International Children's Festival at Harbourfront Centre on Sunday.

It seems an unlikely hit: a play for children that is honest about the cycle of family violence.

"It's a mystery," said the show's director, Daniel Meilleur, speaking in French in a recent phone interview. "At first, programmers were sceptical. They asked: 'Why violence? There's so much on TV.' We built a set thinking we would play three weeks in Montreal, maybe a few dates in Quebec City and Sherbrooke. . . . But as soon as we started, the reaction was totally different."

Children watched the show with rapt attention and proved fully capable of understanding its subtle storytelling. Adults appreciated Meilleur's sparse staging and the deft script provided by Montreal playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, under the French title L'histoire de l'oie. Today, Les Deux Mondes theatre company has branched out into adult theatre, but 10 years after Teeka's debut at a festival in Lyon, France, and that initial Quebec run, the show is still its mainstay.

Meilleur had originally had asked Bouchard to write a fairytale play for Les Deux Mondes in 1986, but the playwright wasn't making much headway.

"I was a bit nervous about children's shows," Bouchard said in French in a recent interview. "At that time, artists still played at being performing dogs for the kids. They asked questions and then they answered them. They were didactic . . . [Instead]I wanted to do a psychological drama for children."

The playwright, now known for such adult fables as The Coronation Voyage, The Orphan Muses and Lilies, pointed out to Meilleur that he had dealt with violence in his previous work. Why not a play about violence for children?

Meilleur agreed, but wanted the artists in his company to participate in the development. Bouchard was wary of becoming merely a recording secretary, and eventually presented the actors and director with Maurice's tale written up as a short story, from which they could then fashion a script together. The result, after more than four years of development, was a highly literate piece featuring an adult version of Maurice as a narrator.

That gives the audience a bit of distance from the events in the play, which occur back in the 1950s. Meilleur's simple but fantastical staging, which features both a full-scale goose puppet and a hand puppet manipulated by the narrator, adds to the effect.

"I call it Walt Disney meets Kafka," Bouchard laughs, adding that the distancing effects allow the play to approach such a heavy subject.

"It's not our aim to give children nightmares, but there are themes that need to be addressed," he said. ". . . I'm not trying to save the world with theatre, but I do dare to ask questions."

So do children in the audience, who always leave the show asking why.

"The kids get it," Meilleur said. "It's us grown-ups who believe that [they have to be protected.]The young are cruel . . . The kid with glasses, the kid who is fat gets teased. This doesn't scare them."

Believing the story is best told in an audience's own language, the company has taken Teeka on tour in English, Spanish and German as well as French. Actors Stéphane Théoret and Alain Fournier have relied on their strong grasp of English and some knowledge of the other two languages to memorize and perform the script in translation.

Bouchard notes with interest the different responses the show has received. In Mexico, spectators were sure that the playwright was acquainted with a local board game featuring a goose loose in a house; German theatre-goers found the tin houses on stage recalled concentration-camp barracks. But everywhere the children in the audience absorb its difficult questions.

"This answers people who think you always have to give children candy," Meilleur said. "Yes, you have to entertain them, but you have to speak about real themes, like life and death." Tale of Teeka plays the Milk Festival in Toronto, May 20-27; 416-952-6204.