“The mosquito is kind of a universally despised creature,” Eric San acknowledged. “If we can build some empathy for a mosquito, I think we’re alright.”
He is willing to give it the old college try. The Montreal DJ, animator and all-around entertainer better known as Kid Koala has built a wildly eclectic career by following his creative whims. His various projects are based on far-fetched concepts that really shouldn’t work out yet somehow turn into ridiculously good times.
Back in the ‘90s, Kid Koala used to win contests with his mind-bending scratch DJ skills, winning over crowds with his artistry and humour. He has released albums of blues-rock, hip-hop and chill-out ambience. He has penned two graphic novels (Nufonia Must Fall and Space Cadet), and created a touring vaudeville carnival.
All of which brings us to The Storyville Mosquito, a live-action puppet-show/movie/concert experience, Nov. 27 to Dec. 8 at Place des Arts’ Cinquième salle.
The Storyville Mosquito is the story of a humble country mosquito who dreams of one day moving to the city and becoming a jazz clarinettist. Of course it is.
The starting point for San was coming up with a protagonist he could relate to.
“It’s funny because I think I’ve always been a fan of all kinds of music, particularly jazz,” he said recently, taking a break from rehearsals with his crew, in a studio space deep in the heart of Place des Arts.
“Particularly, I’ve always had this feeling of being a bit on the outside of it, or not quite good enough to play with the top tier. So in a way I think I understood the core feeling of being a fan of something but not necessarily having the confidence or maybe the talent to get there.”
Yeah right. Anyone who has seen a Kid Koala performance has witnessed the virtuosity of an elite musician with a rare combination of talent, skill and creativity. But OK, being generous, one could see how, given his insatiable curiosity, San may sometimes feel tentative when he first dips his Koala toes into unfamiliar waters.
Yet he is fast becoming a pro at this puppet show/film/concert thing, which he first tried in 2014 with the live version of Nufonia Must Fall, the story of a lonely robot who finds love, now heading into its seventh year of touring the world.
“We’ve been to Abu Dhabi, Australia, Europe, all over the States, the U.K., Chile, Mexico, Asia,” he said. “We’ve been around.”
Nufonia’s success gave San’s manager Ryhna Thompson the idea to get The Storyville Mosquito off the ground, with help from Place des Arts, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and organizations in Germany and Abu Dhabi.
That’s a lot of support for a quirky puppet show about an insect we all love to hate. Yet it was impossible not to be charmed as Koala and his crew ran through a scene from the show last week.
Puppeteers moved our mosquito hero up a flight of stairs within a miniature set, the cinematic image projected live on the big screen. Meanwhile, San pumped out a swanky jazz soundtrack from behind a command-centre console that included keyboards, samplers, drums, a ukulele and toy clarinets.
All seemed to be going swell for our hero until he began blowing a solemn tune on his instrument, only to be the recipient of garbled invective hurled his way by an angry avocado.
Over the course of just a few minutes, the mood shifted from funky to sentimental to conflict to hilarious. San has all that and then some in store over the course of this hour-plus affair.
“It’s another love story,” he explained. “There’s a katydid he meets in the big city he moves to. And then our villain is a tarantula named Thornton; he plays vibraphone and he’s pretty mean and bully-ish.
“(The mosquito) grows through all his interactions. In the end, it’s about personal growth and a change of perspective in terms of what you think is important and the value of music.”
Although there are matinees, and the show is deemed appropriate for children 6 and up, it’s not strictly a kids’ show, San assured. That said, audience members big and small will be unsure what they’re in for until they sit down, take it in and realize they’ve been affected in unforeseen ways.
“There’s an element of joy and surprise,” San said. “When people came to see Nufonia, originally, they didn’t understand what it was. They were like, ‘Is this a puppet show for kids?’ Then they realized it was a three-act film with an emotional arc.
“I had adults coming up to me after saying, ‘I cried three times.’ That we’re able to resonate with them on that level is great.”
Like Nufonia, The Storyville Mosquito is inspired by San’s longstanding love of Charlie Chaplin. As such, it’s dialogue-free, leaving ample room for people to find their own connections to the narrative.
Contemplating his expanding empire of multimedia drama geared to the inner child in everyone, San summed up his motivation with a response shared by his audiences everywhere:
“It’s an impossible amount of fun.”
AT A GLANCE
Kid Koala: The Storyville Mosquito runs Nov. 27 to Dec. 8 at Place des Arts’ Cinquième salle. For tickets, schedule and other information, visit kidkoala.com