Comet in Moominland performance photo

CBC Review: Comet In Moominland

 

With ingenious design and playful performances, MTYP’s Comet In Moominland is bound to dazzle and delight youngsters. (Leif Norman/Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

It’s hard to imagine a tale of impending apocalyptic doom more completely charming and delightful than Comet In Moominland.

The show — based on the 1946 book by Finnish writer Tove Jansson — has become Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s signature show since it premiered at the theatre during the 1989-90 season, and has gone on to tour around the world (including a visit to New York City).

With a breathtakingly stylish production opening MTYP’s 2018-19 season, it’s easy to see why Comet In Moominland has endured.

It follows the story of young Moomintroll and his family (curious hippopotamus-like creatures), whose home — like the rest of the planet — is threatened by an impending comet strike. Moomintroll and his friends set off on a dangerous journey to a mountaintop observatory, where they hope scientists will be able to tell them how long they have before the doomsday comet hits.

The animated performances of David Warburton and Jennifer Lyon contribute to a sense of playfulness and imagination that makes the production work. (Leif Norman/Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

It sounds like a dark premise for a children’s show, and in some ways it is. As the comet approaches, it begins to scorch the planet — creating environmental catastrophe that sadly probably seems even more real to kids now than in 1989. (Though — 70-year-old spoiler alert — Jansson wrote a dozen more Moomin books after Comet, so you can probably guess the Earth isn’t actually vaporized in the end.)

What makes this adaptation of Comet so successful in spite of that darkness is how fully committed it is to the concepts of playfulness and indulging the imagination.

The adaptation was co-created nearly 30 years ago by designer William Chesney, adaptor Graham Whitehead and MTYP founding artistic director Leslee Silverman (who directs this production, returning to the theatre for the first time since she was dismissed in 2013).

Their adaptation moves briskly, never falling into lulls during its hour-long running time. It offers thrills (very sensitive youngsters should know there’s a slightly intense moment involving a cave monster), lovable characters and laughs (including some for adults, like the chain-smoking scientists at the observatory).

The performers commit themselves totally to the sense of playfulness that’s essential here. Jennifer Lyon and David Warburton delight as they bring the play’s many characters to life through the use of simple hand puppets (designed by Shawn Kettner), mostly intricate figurines just a few inches tall but seeming fully alive thanks to Lyon and Warburton’s animated performances.

William Chesney’s stunning doll-sized sets surround the audience space, creating a truly immersive experience. (Leif Norman/Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

But most importantly, it engages through its ingenious design. The audience sits on the floor in a tent-like space created in the MTYP theatre, with the action taking place around the edges. Lyon and Warburton puppeteer on stunning doll-sized sets, arranged on tables surrounding the audience space.

The effect is truly immersive — as Moomintroll and his friends move around us in the intimate space, it’s impossible not to be drawn deeply into the story (though grown-ups with long legs — and less flexibility than youngsters — might find sitting on the floor for an hour a bit of a challenge).

Chesney’s sets — creating everything from the Moomin family home to a tragically dried-out seabed — astonish with their painstaking detail and ingenuity. There were admiring gasps from the audience as the sets, covered by cloths at the start of the show, were revealed one by one.

It’s been a while since Comet In Moominland was last seen at MTYP, so take advantage of its latest pass. It’s bound to dazzle and delight your youngsters.

Comet In Moominland runs at Manitoba Theatre for Young People until Oct. 28.