‘Swift!’ brings theater for all sizes

by Lindsay Nelson

Special To The Japan Times

Parents and lovers of visually creative theater: French company Skappa! has just the play for you.

Debuting in Tokyo on Dec. 13, “Swift!” is a “journey into a world of absurd proportions” inspired by Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels.” Though it’s billed as appropriate for ages 3 and up, there are no cute animals, garish costumes or perky tunes in this tale that moves between strange and unfamiliar landscapes.

With few exceptions, “family friendly” theater (aka theater for children that parents tolerate) tends to be didactic, saccharine and watered-down. Skappa!, founded in 1998, has sought to change that with creative, thought-provoking works that seek to engage but not patronize children.

The brainchild of artists Paolo Cardona and Isabelle Hervouët, Skappa! mixes video projection, storytelling, tricks of light and perspective with cutting-edge theater tech to create visually striking dramas for all ages. Hence they reject the term “children’s theater,” choosing to “offer a global artistic gesture without compromising its content; focusing on not subtracting any meaning under the pretext of speaking to children.”

Skappa!’s first work, “Uccellini,” featured an actor finger-painting a series of creatively morphing images onto a large bolt of cloth. A fish and an egg were transformed into a giant man who then seemed to become an octopus, then a man again — now ready to burst off of the canvas as the words “le monde est grand” (“the world is big”) appeared.

“Uccellini” laid the groundwork for Skappa!’s creative and aesthetic vision, and has been performed more than 1,000 times in several different countries.

“Swift!,” Skappa!’s first staging in Japan, uses the figure of Gulliver — alternately a small man in a world of giants and a giant in a world of tiny people — to take audiences to a place “where nature is turned upside down and we are forced to deal with objects that are too big or too small.”

Combining the minimalist approach of “Uccellini” with high-tech visual trickery, “Swift!” follows its lead performer on a fantastical voyage between worlds. A little wooden cart with a plastic bag for a sail becomes a boat tossed in a storm. The crackling of a plastic bottle and a simple projection on the screen are used to create the illusion of fire. At one point, tiny people appear to climb onto the giant Gulliver and build an entire city on top of him.

“Swift!” is being produced in Tokyo with the support of the Institut Francais du Japon. Language barriers are not an issue as there is very little dialogue, and the brief spoken parts are in an “invented language” created by Cardona specifically for the show. At 45 minutes, it’s also a good length for children while, as a bonus for parents, admission is free for under-12s.

For sure, “Swift!” is not typical child’s fare, and it may not be every youngster’s cup of tea — but it’s bold, energetic, and will likely inspire a child’s imagination and curiosity much more than typical “family friendly” entertainment.

“Swift!” plays Dec. 13-15 at the Owlspot Theater in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Tickets are ¥3,000 for adults; free for children. For more information (in French and Japanese), visit institutfrancais.jp/tokyo.