Review: The Questing Beast – Toronto Fringe Festival

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Dirx Puppetry and Film show off their creature building talent in this co-pro with Sapling Productions.

I don’t often go to kids shows but being friends with creator Steven Dirckze and knowing the talent he and his partner Taylor Tofflemire have when it comes to building puppets, I knew I needed to check this one out. I’m going to try think back to my younger days and review this with a child’s interests in mind.

The Questing Beast is the story of King Pellinore (Anthony Botelho), an Arthurian-era hero whose life is dedicated to hunting “the beast”. Why? Because his father did it, and his father before – it’s what has always been done! The stage is set by his Fool, (Kristina Roberts), who asks the audience in a clear, loud voice (and to a round of adorable “yeahs!”) whether they want to hear a story – she pulled the children in, and as the unofficial narrator was the one who broke the fourth wall for exposition and jokes for the parents. Big and expressive, Roberts is clearly either an experienced children’s performer or is a natural.

As the “wench” to Grummore Grummersum (Christoph Ibrahim), Taylor Tofflemire likewise is a big presence onstage. After realizing she needs to don a moustache to sneak her way into the “boys club” of knights, she puts on a “manly” act and caused her fair share of giggles with her expressive eyebrows and larger-than-life characterization: the kids in the audience clearly loved her.

Writer/creator Steven Dirckze was the main puppeteer, playing both the ghost of the old King – Pellinore’s father – and, in what is likely what most kids will be raving about after the show, the 10′ tall giraffe puppet. The giraffe alone makes the show worth seeing, and if the kiddies hang around out front afterwards, they’ll get a chance to meet the beast up close.

And finally, leading man Anthony Botelho. Anyone who has seen him perform before will instantly recognize his booming voice and perfectly articulated movements, always big but never over-the-top, Botelho is one of the few performers I’ve seen excel in a children’s show as much as he does in a drama. His sharp tongue effortlessly spit out Dirckze’s many rhymes and riddles, and his even pacing made him very easy to understand (good for the kiddies) without falling into the trap of talking in slow, almost stilted sentences, something that often befalls children’s performers. He is the star of the show and rightfully so.

Overall I genuinely enjoyed myself, and the kids in the audience seemed to as well, but this is likely not the show for all children. The story is fairly complex, and with a lot of big words (especially when used in soliloquy and so without any action to help give them context) it likely went over the heads of many of the smaller children there. Were they still excited to see a big giraffe puppet? Yes. But this may be best saved for slightly older children or for those with very good attention spans.

Likewise, the show takes place in a very traditional theatre setting – raised stage, audience in darkness – which may be new to some children and could feel distracting. If they are used to more of a, sit-in-a-circle-for-library-time type performance, this may require some effort to keep them focused. The same goes for the scene changes which were a little lengthy, and caused at least one child to yell out, “what’s happening??” – personally I would have embraced the lack of fourth wall and used some of the players to move things in the light, as near constant action is needed to keep the youngest of the crowd entertained.

One other small quibble, which may not be something that stands out to many but for some reason did to me – parts of the story feel a little old-fashioned. And when I say that, I mean “old” as in from my youth – early 90s type tropes. The girls and the boys are not treated equally. Do the girls notice this? Absolutely, and they complain and one goes so far as to disguise herself as a man, but there is no “lesson” to this. In the end, the Fool and the King do seem to treat each other more as equals, and it’s hinted that the same may happen for Grummersum and the Wench, but it comes a bit out of nowhere, and in the day of books like “Baby Feminist”, something that was so common in what I read as a child suddenly stood out to me, and not exactly in a good way. Also, there is a brief moment in the middle of the play where the beast is given some backstory, done beautifully through shadow puppet silhouette in a way that reminded me of some 18th century cuttings I’ve seen. However, the story was bizarrely dark, with a queen being tricked, impregnated by the devil, and eventually causing the death of her beloved. Yeah. Gets dark. Having been a big Grimm fan by the age of 8 myself, I’m not saying I necessarily think this is inappropriate for all kids, but I was surprised by it in what was up until then very much a child friendly show. So if you’re very particular about the stories you let your little ones consume, maybe check in with the creators for some details beforehand, but honestly, I think the kids are likely to just leave thinking about that big giraffe.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Venue: St. Vladimir Theatre, 620 Spadina Ave.
Venue Info: Air conditioned, indoor, accessible, masks required
Remaining Shows:
14th July 2:00pm
17th July 11pm
Tickets: Here
More Info: Here

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