French fantasy arrives in Fremantle

16 December 2021

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre reimagines Saint-Saëns’ animal carnival with Fremantle flair, writes Claire Coleman and junior reviewer Eddy Greentree, who is going back for more.

Carnival of the Animals, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, 8 December 2021 ·

It’s one of those Perth summer evenings when the sun goes down but the temperature doesn’t. The auditorium at Spare Parts Puppet Theatre is warm, but the airless feeling in the room is born of anticipation rather than a ventilation failure.

You see, Spare Parts latest offering Carnival of the Animals is a work of many hands (not to mention voices). First presented with the WA Symphony Orchestra in 2018, many of those involved then and now are gathered in the audience for tonight’s theatrical premiere.

Composer Camille Saint-Saëns (who unsurprisingly was not present tonight, having lived from 1835-1921 in France) is the progenitor of this work. Carnival of the Animals is a suite of fourteen short pieces, each taking an animal as their theme. Playful hens, elegant fish, and even busy pianists – the most curious animal of them all! – are among Saint-Saëns musical illustrations.

A pianist sits at her instrument on a stage, with large orange puppets oon sticks overshadowing her
Pianist Yi-Yun Loei is overshadowed by puppets in Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’. Photo supplied

In tonight’s version, Saint-Saëns’ score for two pianos is performed by Perth’s own Yi-Yun Loei, an acclaimed harpist and pianist, and Tommy Seah, a doctoral candidate and lecturer at the WA Academy of Performing Arts. Generally they cut a serious duo, with occasional turns at frivolity, including a tragic rejection of the affections of a very cute donkey in “Characters with Long Ears”.

In fact, the stage is rife with locally trained talent. The animals are brought to life by puppeteers Tamara Creasey, a WAAPA alumnus, and Malek Domkoc, who studied theatre at Curtin and screen acting at WAAPA. Both performers expertly navigate the stage balance, knowing when to direct focus to the puppets and when to step out as themselves. Creasey brings a comical flair, Domkoc a restrained subtlety, but both are superb performers and a good team.

The puppets are works of art in themselves. Designed by performance co-creator Leon Hendroff and built by the team at Spare Parts, they give a snapshot of the variation the puppet medium offers. Personal favourites were the donkey, with his expressive ears and irresistible grin, and the tortoise, with a friendly visage, a broad back for Creasey and Domkoc to ride and big round glasses. But it’s also hard to overlook the troublemaking rooster with his proud feathered neck, or the cheeky joey riding in his mum’s pouch.

A highlight is the voiceovers that introduce each new animal with a reading of a short poem. The words, written in 1990 by Australian playwright Nick Enright, are playful and humorous, adding new narrative elements to Saint-Saëns’ compositions.

Many of the local readers are present in the audience. The sounds of their voices range in age from children to seniors, with accents indicating homegrown and adoptive members of the Perth community are represented, as well as people with disabilities. It was a delight to be gifted this audio glimpse of Perth’s diversity.

Coupled with co-creator Michael Barlow’s video footage of familiar Perth landscapes – a fast-motion train journey on the Bull Creek line, a speedy run up Jacob’s Ladder, an elegant boat ride through the mouth of the Swan River – these voiceovers situate the performance firmly in our own glorious backyard.

Hendroff and Barlow’s work skilfully reimagines an almost century old piece of music from the other side of the world in a way that feels fresh, fun, and firmly our own.

Two people ride on the back of an enormous turtle puppet while reading books
Tamara Creasey and Malek Domkoc ride the broad back of a turtle in ‘Carnival of the Animals’. Photo supplied

 Junior review by Eddy Greentree, age 9 ·

As a huge fan of Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, I wasn’t sure whether a performance of the music on two pianos would capture the feeling of all the animals and instruments you can hear in the orchestral piece. Now that I’ve seen and heard the show at the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, I can reassure fans of the music that it is almost as good, and the puppets and film are awesome. 

There are fourteen movements plus an introduction, and there was a puppet for every animal except for wild asses, which was changed to an emu to fit with the Australian theme. The words and poems by Nick Enright, along with the bits of film projected onto a circular screen, gave a good introduction to each animal and their piece of music. Each story and film connected to Perth in some way, giving it a nice local feeling. 

The puppets were amazing, and also very funny. My favourites were the donkey, who kept giving cheeky smiles, and the tortoise who gave the puppeteers a ride. 

There were two puppeteers (Tamara Creasey and Malek Domkoc) for the whole performance, along with the two pianists (Tommy Seah and Yi-Yun Loei) who played all the music. The puppeteers had perfect timing, even with the really huge puppets. The pianists worked well together with the puppeteers and sometimes joined in the fun. 

I enjoyed this show so much that I’m going to go and see it again in January.  I think kids of all ages will enjoy it, especially those who love music and puppets. 

Pictured top: Pianists Yi-Yun Loei and Tommy Seah are part of the onstage puppet fun in ‘Carnival of the Animals’. Photo supplied

Carnival of the Animals runs 10 – 29 January.

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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