San goes beyond the boundaries with blend of theatre, music and film

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Photo: John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

Photo: John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

The city may be an indifferent, sometimes cruel place. But it can still harbour grace and love even if you’re an almost-obsolete robot infatuated with an office worker who’s as much a misfit as you. That’s the ultimately hopeful upshot of Nufonia Must Fall Live!, the gentle puppet-show-with-a-difference by Eric San, a.k.a. Montreal-based scratch DJ and music producer Kid Koala, that’s been making a splash at home and abroad since it debuted last year.

Based on his own 2003 graphic novel and soundtrack Nufonia Must Fall, San’s multidisciplinary show employs real-time filming of more than a dozen miniature stages and a cast of white puppets, with the video projected on a screen at the rear of the stage.

The audience can make out the puppeteers and camera people as they go about their business on stage. Koala and the Afiara Quartet provide live — and alternately sad, lush and disquieting — music on piano, strings and turntables at stage rear.

The story is a spin on the classic boy-meets-girl tale, with the boy in this case an old-school robot who loses a series of dead-end jobs, including call centre operator and sandwich maker to a newer, faster model. The shy, outmoded robot falls hard for the winsome but lonely girl, and the tale unfolds as such tales tend to do complete with trials, tribulations and an affirmative ending.

Aside from a series of mean-spirited puppet bosses, no one speaks in the show, which is mostly rendered in black and white. But thanks to San’s estimable creativity, the skill of puppeteers and musicians alike, and the imagination of audiences (including young, appreciative children on Saturday afternoon), words and colour are omnipresent. Think of it as a silent film with an existential gloss about alienation and a contemporary technological assist.

Compared to elaborate puppets like those of Canadian master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, these ones are simple affairs. Their heads swivel and their arms move, but that’s pretty much it. Yet we care about these little people, their isolation, their needs and desires. It’s clear they are not much different from us.

Directed by K.K. Barrett, Nufonia Must Fall Live! is an intriguing blend of theatre, music and film. Live theatre, by definition, is never the same from one performance to another. In the case of film, each audience member will see something different, but the show itself never changes. Music straddles the two, depending on whether it’s a live or recorded performance.

San’s show, by blending the three, deliberately disrupts their normal boundaries. That disruption is heightened because we are able to watch, simultaneously, both the filming and the film, not something we’re used to. The disruptions, far from distancing us, help break down our preconceptions about art and reality, drawing us deeper into the strange-but-familiar world that San creates.

But in the end, what San and company tell us is an intimate, entrancing tale.

And isn’t that what a love story is supposed to be?


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