If the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream had been tasked with creating an all-ages show, it might look and sound like Everything Under the Moon.
Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows's new collaboration, opening the 2012 World Stage season at Harbourfront Centre, is a delicate filigree of gossamer, shadows and tinkling melodies. The gossamer and shadows come from Boyle, the popular Toronto visual artist, who skillfully blends transparent projections and shadow puppetry to illustrate the adventures of a bee and a bat. The melodies are those of Winnipeg singer-songwriter Fellows, whose gentle, folk-tinged songs make up the story's narrative.
Together they've woven a charming, but also slightly confusing, eco-fable. Although they've performed as a duo frequently in the past – Fellows playing her songs and Boyle providing accompanying imagery – this is their first foray into theatre and it would have benefited from a director.
Their tale is inspired by the alarming decrease in population over the last six years of two common North American species. Idared, or a honeybee whose colony is gone, befriends Limbertwig, a little brown bat who has lost his mother. In search of answers to their species' plight, they embark on a journey that takes them from the farthest reaches of the north to the depths of a southern volcano. Along the way, they get help and guidance from an owl, a woolly mammoth and an Inuk elder with a flying snowmobile.
Fellows blissfully weds simple but eloquent lyrics to a finely textured musical score. She sings the narration and the role of Limbertwig, as well as performing on ukulele and keyboard. She's joined onstage by two excellent multi-instrumentalists. Alex McMaster evokes droning bees on her cello and signals distress with a jazz trumpet. Ed Reifel's percussion rustles like a bat's wings, while his marimba suggests raindrops plinking on the surface of a pond.
They are almost upstaged, however, by Boyle's beguiling on-the-spot animation. Employing two overhead projectors at the front and back of a large screen, she uses them to cast silhouettes as well as to manipulate and hand-embellish pictures on transparencies. With the help of two assistants (Emma Letki and Amy Siegel), the agile Boyle darts back and forth, conjuring up an endless array of witty and entrancing images.
In one inspired sequence – a clever little jab at anthropomorphism – transparent layers are peeled back, one by one, until the anatomically accurate faces of the bat and bee have transformed into more human-like and friendly cartoons. In another delightful scene, a spider – who has taken to spinning doilies instead of webs – bursts into a lively dance, its eight legs kicking jauntily.
When not working her visual sorcery, Boyle ventures into singing, ably taking on the part of Idared. Fellows, in turn, steps from behind her keyboard to participate in some of the puppetry.Boyle and Fellows aren't known for doing kid-friendly stuff. Boyle's artwork, in particular, is often sexual and/or disturbing. But here her use of cartooning and collage is cheerful and without irony. Only at one point does she give in to her macabre streak, with a skeletal child apparently sacrificed to the volcano. That character may be a little too creepy for younger members of the audience.
Fellows's sweet, ingenuous voice, meanwhile, is perfectly suited to a fairy tale. You can hear the unaffected wonder in her tone when she sings, in the lilting opening song, "we are one enormous family of extraordinary creatures." It's Circle of Life without the pretensions.
The plot, however, could use some work. It's hard to follow in places and even adults will be puzzled by the climax. I could imagine a small child asking a parent, "What happened to the bee?" and the parent replying, "Gee, I'm not sure." But if the story is weak, the storytelling is utterly captivating. You emerge from this show as if waking from a dream.
Everything Under the Moon
- Created and performed by Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows
- A World Stage presentation
- At the Enwave Theatre in Toronto
Everything Under the Moon runs until Feb. 23.
Special to The Globe and Mail