Czech director Pavel Dobrusky and Norwegian director Per-Olav Sorensen frequently collaborate, and when they do, lightning strikes.
Their productions feature fantastic special effects (they are both set designers as well), caustic social commentary, and dynamic performances. They can be outrageous, even offensive, but they are never boring.
They divide their time between Europe and America, and have produced three distinctive pieces for the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), and this year's offering is a multicultural exploration of folk tales.
"Fables" takes its cue from folklorist Joseph Campbell, finding connections among these stories that are sometimes poetic, and sometimes too weird for words. A fine cast with a multicultural heritage (Americans all) and multifaceted talents interpret the stories creatively without sentimentalizing them.
Part of the magic Mr. Dobrusky and Mr. Sorensen make arises from their different approach to the theater and to rehearsal - an approach best described, perhaps, as "process theater."
"Fables" began as commission to do an experimental piece for the DCTC's family series. After collecting 200 fables, folk tales, and fairy tales, they auditioned actors in New York, and acquired three classically-trained singers (two of whom are Asian-Americans and one African-American), a professional clown, a gymnast, a European-American proficient in Japanese and in marital arts, an acrobat, an East Indian actress accomplished in storytelling, and dancers from a variety of traditions (14 performers plus a musician expert in a variety of ethnic instruments) - all of whom are also highly skilled actors. Every continent of the world is represented except Australia.
Of the original 200, 35 stories were selected for performance, classified according to theme (all the creation tales together, all the lion stories, etc.), and dramatized - each actor taking stories from his or her own heritage and other favorites, and, using their peculiar talents to help tell the tales, began to create the "script."
"The goal is to tell the fables," says Sorensen, "and where you bring people with different talents and different cultural [backgrounds], you have to find a new way of telling, a new language of telling."
Dobrusky points out that Michelangelo would feel the stone before he carved it, looking for its "heart" and believed that he was releasing the form from the stone, rather than imposing a form on it. So the whole company works together to release the form within the mass of stories - to tell them in such a way that they flow like dreams into one another.
Certain stories have a way of cropping up all over the world - the same basic story emerges with specific cultural features.
The race between the tortoise and the hare in one tradition might translate into a tortoise and a fox in another (or 10 tortoises, for that matter), but "slow and steady" still wins the race. "The Tortoise and the Hare," in fact, is the one story used to unify them all in this production, opening and closing the show, and at one point, a cacophony of voices rises to tell us all the variations of the story.
The rehearsals are taped as the actors improvise, working with the dialogue, and changing it as the scenes develop. When a scene is just right, the dialogue is transcribed and the scene is "set."
"Fairy tales and fables were created for one important purpose," says Dobrusky, "to educate the young. They are constantly being adapted through time, and they are being used to teach children about the world in symbolic and metaphorical ways. There are different ways of approaching the world - enormous differences - from culture to culture. But there are also similarities. We try to take the truth of the story as it is told and make it interesting to watch - but we don't change the story."
The stories all reflect real human issues - and those issues can be harsh. Even the moral fables can have cruel punch lines. Take the one about the tortoise who nags an eagle to show him how to fly: The eagle takes him up in the sky and drops him. A large plastic tortoise falls from the ceiling, and an actor stands up with a goofy grin and a sign that reads "Envy is a thing to be avoided."
And that's just Aesop for you. There are no sanitized versions here because part of the point of "Fables" is to be faithful to cultural diversity and to the human struggles the stories convey.
So some parents might find these tales too abrasive for younger children. But teens and adults are bound to find the production an expansive experience.
Not only do simple stories we have taken for granted now take on unexpected depth and wisdom, but when you see them laid out like this, one story flowing into the next, it becomes clear how very much we all have in common, however different we may be.