Review: The Red Balloon by Tongue and Groove Theatre
by Michael Meigs
In 1956 the 34-year-old French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse wrote and filmed the slim, imaginative, 34-minute fantasy The Red Balloon. His son Pascal played the central role, that of a quiet, lonely schoolboy who discovers a magical red balloon -- one that recognizes him, follows him with the simplicity and loyalty of a pet dog, and provides an escape from the emptiness of barren city life. Lamorisse's daughter Sabine played the little girl who appears with a similar but blue balloon. The film is a lyrical meditation on the imagination of childhood. It won award after award, including an Academy Award for best original screenplay -- the only time in the history of the Oscars that a short film received a major Academy victory outside the short film category.
It's a wonderful piece, largely without dialogue and scored to a whimsical score by Maurice Leroux. It was widely distributed and admired; copies of the 16 mm film resided in many school libraries in the United States, where successive generations were surprised and enchanted by it.
David Yeakle, animator Leah Lovise and composer Justin Sherburn have taken that elegantly minimalist film, inflated it, expanded it, decorated it and rescored it. The Tongue and Groove Theatre production of The Red Balloon, "adapted freely from the film 'Le Ballon Rouge,'" is equally captivating but in a different way.
Their production is, in essence, a ballet featuring a quickly progressing series of mimed scenes, very much in the flavor of the early Charlie Chaplin. Sherburn's music is catchy, alert and vivid, with the quick wit of film music. Lovise's animation, projected behind the stage, uses bold colors and big happy designs like those of a well illustrated children's book. It's part concert, part dance, part cartoon, part puppetry, a feast of sight, sound and story telling. There's a rare mix of simplicity and sophistication here.
Our imaginative participation is encouraged in part by the fact that young adults are playing the roles of the schoolchildren. Yeakle's direction and choreography are clever and inventive in the classroom scenes, during which three or more groups are carrying on at recess. Squabbles break out, Jeanne Harris as the teacher intervenes with admonitions and corrections, girls braid one another's hair, and a clownish gang of four "bad kids" keeps seeking out mischief.
The only real kid in sight, it seems, is the lead -- Gricelda Silva, the bright-eyed young woman playing the bright-eyed boy befriended by the faithful balloon. With her slight figure, fresh face and utter concentration, she is like a sylph, one of Paracelsus' elemental beings of the air. She has an androgynous purity -- a quality that is almost disconcerting when the Boy meets a Girl with a blue balloon, for Mimi Kayl-Vaughan in that role, with womanly figure and confident, balletic motion, might be twice Gricelda's age. This is a world where the rules of motion, inertia, ageing and entropy do not apply.
The Boy goes walking with his balloon, giving animator and director the opportunity to stage clever vignettes. Characters mime forward motion while standing in one place in Moon Walk fashion, while the colorful projected scenery rolls steadily past behind them. There are pauses at the hairdresser's, at the dentist's, at a shop, where characters pop through the center scrim and metamorphise into cartoon figures before emerging, transformed. Jolliest of all is the bus that pulls up in painted, animated splendor, for the Boy to climb aboard and rattle away home. Zeb West mimes an elderly gentleman, a flapping, bewigged and big-nosed clown figure, who befriends the Boy and later pays comic court to his Mother (Rae Petersen).
The balloon puppetry is artfully done by James Leach and Michael Plaster, out of sight at the end of the wire stretching across the stage. It does not have quite the magic effect of that in the film, for most of the time the line is visible. One happily pays the price of suspension of disbelief.
On opening night the house was virtually full -- no surprise, considering the success of the 2008 staging of this piece. It has something for everyone. And at the end, when a sudden tragic moment is overwhelmed by the happy solidarity of balloondom, the color, music and movement are uplifting. For the Boy, in this case, quite literally.
As we departed the theatre, we couldn't help smiling. Nor could two young girls, only slightly younger than Gricelda, who were so delighted by the show that they were themselves bouncing about on the empty stage with the balloons.
Footnote: The 2008 production won seven B. Iden Payne awards, including the committee's special Standing Ovation Certificate for Leah's animation.
Wendy Mitchell's 10-minute HD video of scenes from The Red Balloon, via Tongue & Groove Theatre
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704