[Document open, review jump out]
I wish it was as easy as Polarbear says. And by Polarbear, I mean storyteller Steven Camden, but Polarbear is just more fun to say. And that’s what Mouth Open, Story Jump Out is. Oodles of fun.
I say “oodles” because it encapsulates exactly the kind of unbridled, creative spirit that Polarbear exudes and encourages in his 90-minute show. The kind of energy that makes the under-10s excited and their parents (and fellow adults) put aside their cynicism momentarily to go on a theatrical train ride that can only be captained by a man named after an arctic bear.
Polarbear says anyone can tell a story. In Mouth Open, Story Jump Out, he conjures up stories via crowdsourced suggestions, done Mad Libs-style.
So let’s try.
What we need:
A first name
A number between 1 and 100
Your favourite hobby
A type of plant
An interesting animal
Another interesting animal
Your favourite drink
The name of your favourite musician
Something a parent would say to you
There once was a person named __(1)__ __(2)__, aged__(3)__. They were sitting quietly and __(4)__ in the kitchen, when they noticed the __(5)__ rustling in the garden. They stopped doing whatever it was they were doing and went outside to check what was causing the noise.
To their surprise, they saw an animal that was half __(6)__, half __(7)__! But it was shy and didn’t want to make friends, so __(1)__ gave it some __(8)__. The __(6)__-__(7)__ drank it in one big gulp!
With a smile on its face, it said: “My name is __(9)__! That was very delicious, thank you.”. Then it added “__(10)__!”. Before __(1)__ could respond, the smile faded from the __(6)__-__(7)__’s face. It started doubling over with pain glistening in its round eyes.
Even though __(1)__ was too young to fully understand the world, they understood that their encounter with their new friend was going to be short-lived. It had chosen to spend its last waking moments amongst the __(5)__ leaves that night.
“Goodbye,” said __(1)__, their voice barely registering.
That night, __(1)__ __(2)__ vowed to remember their new friend forever.
That’s not part of the review, that was just for fun, sort of. As Polarbear would say, “I got distracted again”. And if you think that story got dark, well, so does Mouth Open, Story Jump Out.
Because these fun little stories – like that about Creepy, the pocket dog, and Lorna, the elder sister with kitten legs – punctuate the larger narrative frame of the show, that of Polarbear’s family and how he discovered his love for storytelling. Or more specifically, how a lie about his absent father while in primary school made him cool, but not without a price.
A spoken word artist, Polarbear deftly peppers his performance with fast pace lines, repetitions and bombshells like “My dad disappeared on a Sunday night while everyone was asleep”. The effect is an undercurrent of pathos in the show that is never acknowledged.
You get the feeling Polarbear has some demons he needs exorcised but wisely refrains from doing so in a children’s show. He often “gets distracted” by starting new stories only to leave them half-finished and dip back into the main story about his childhood.
He is also a master at disarming the audience and connecting them to his stories. While talking about his mother, who used to be a nurse, he singles out a woman in the audience who also works as a nurse.
“She works so hard. You’ll know,” he says. She smiles. She knows.
At this point, I get distracted again. Google tells me that Mouth Open, Story Jumps Out is also the title of a book of Caribbean folk tales for children by a writer named Grace Hallworth. The stories feature scary characters. I assume that this is not a coincidence.
Polarbear’s dad is the bogeyman in this story. But he is also the person who comes up with the pithy saying: “A lie is selfish, a story is a gift.” The storyteller dad begets a storyteller son, who is making a living sharing his gift to the world. I almost want to give him a hug.
Polarbear is separated from the audience with a busy set designed by Marie Blunck that is filled with toys, maps, photos and pieces of torn-up paper with drawings on them. The torn-up paper makes it look like he is standing on a sea of broken ice sheets. At some points, he looks totally alone. Unmoored.
But then he hands out paper and markers to the audience and gets us to draw the characters we’ve heard about in the show. I draw Donna, his reggae-loving, karate-chopping sister. He asks us to tear the edges of the paper away.
I imagine that whatever pain Polarbear has is countered with the lightness of love for his art and for sharing that love with others. We add our pieces of paper to his. The sea of broken ice sheets expands towards us, bringing us closer together.
Because we all have pain. Darkness. Stories. Short-lived encounters in the night. We know.
[Document close, review floats slowly away]
Mouth Open, Story Jumps Out is on at Unicorn Theatre until 27 October 2018. Click here for more information.