Once upon a time there was Toutou

BEIRUT – Imagine an enchanted world where the Big Bad Wolf fails to eat Little Red Riding Hood because he accidentally ate a poisoned red apple – the one dropped in the forest by the Queen from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”Imagine an extravagant world in which Prince Charming from “Sleeping Beauty” does not awaken his beloved from her 102-yearlong snooze because, by mistake, he snogs the 118-year-old grandmother from “Little Red Riding Hood” instead.Imagine a fantastical world where the Rootabaga Fairy from Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories” has lost her magic wand and the poor woodcutter from “Hop-o’-My Thumb” is pregnant with her eighth child and is looking for her lost Little Thumbling.

If you can manage all that imagining, and you’ve got a bit of French, you’re likely to enjoy the captivating family play “Inspector Toutou,” nowadays up at Masrah Monnot.

Written by French author Pierre Gripari and retooled for the stage by Michele Malek, the director of the Tres-Tot-Theatre workshop, this exciting theater piece opens upon a colorful and imaginative stage design.

Beneath two drizzling orange lights, a flowered swing sits still in the center of the stage. Flanking Inspector Toutou’s messy desk on the left is a black-and-white painting of himself. To the right is the lip of a blue slide, which delivers some of Toutou’s clients from a little room in the upper reaches of the theater.

On cue, joyful drum-and-trumpet music – which makes a cheerful audience clap their hands – accompanies the entrance of Maria Tasso, who plays the Queen’s Magic Mirror of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” from the back of the stage, wearing window frame.

As with most folk tales, the speaking-mirror character (here clad in an electric silver costume) first plays the role of the narrator. He explains that the Queen sold him because he always told the truth.

“But silence now,” the mirror warns. “The play is about to start …”

To the accompaniment of a bluesy soundtrack, Inspector Toutou walks on stage wearing a three-piece suit, bow tie and fake dogs’ ears. As he adjusts his black horn-rim glasses, he complains that his phone keeps ringing.

On the other side of the phone line, standing on a pedestal, the black bowler-hatted Rootabaga Fairy (Carl Keyrouz), asks for help because she’s lost her magic wand (“baguette magique”). Barely listening to her litany of complaints, Toutou retorts that he has not seen any “bread baguette” and slams down the phone. He then addresses his new acquisition, the Magic Mirror.

“Am I handsome?” he asks.

“You certainly are,” the mirror says in reply.

“Am I a good man?” the inspector inquires. The mirror again agrees.

“Am I smart?”

This time the mirror demurs. “No,” he says. “You are not.”

Indeed Toutou’s stupidity is the reason he triggers so many twists in this play’s mixture of extraordinary tales.

Enter the tousled-haired Big Bad Wolf (Delila Sehnaoui), wearing a fake tail and holding a lamb chop. BBW is looking for Little Red Riding Hood because – as we all know from our childhood – he wants to eat her.

BBW addresses the audience, asking if there are any children in the house. One, apparently captivated, youngster shouts, “I am not a child!”

BBW tells Toutou he genuinely cares about Little Red Riding Hood and the naïve inspector takes him at his word. He consults his Magic Mirror concerning Little Red Riding Hood’s whereabouts and gives away her hiding place to the wolf.

Accompanied by ceremonial baroque music, the Queen (Isabelle Fayad) slowly enters the stage, waving to the crowd as she does. Clothed in a red dress with a long veil and holding a red apple, she approaches Toutou and extends her hand so he can kiss it.

Not understanding that she is searching for Snow White in order to poison her with the apple, the Inspector discloses the whereabouts of the young lady and her dwarvish pals.

Next up is Prince Charming (Carl Keyrouz, again), dressed in a blue suit and yellow shoulder pads. The prince explains that he needs to know the whereabouts of his Sleeping Beauty so he can awaken and marry her.

After the interval, the woodcutter (Laura Gebeili) appears to the accompaniment of the tune “Hit the road, Jack.” He claims he’s desperately looking for his Little Thumbling – though those in the audience familiar with the tale know Thumbling has fled his ghastly parents.

At last, the elegant Fairy (Aya-Nay Haddad) appears clothed in a long purple-and-yellow dress and a pearl necklace. Yelling, “You will not utter a word!” she transforms Inspector Toutou into a dog. Speechless, he begins barking and wandering among the audience.

Looking not unlike a late-model cross of Blake Edwards’ Inspector Clouseau and the premises of the “Shrek” franchise, “Inspector Toutou” is an entertaining piece that plunges each audience member back into the wonders of childhood. It transports us back to the most popular folk tales, from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to “Sleeping Beauty.”

Pierre Gripari’s iconoclastic piece mixes genres – Charles Perrault’s traditional stories with Arabic adventure literature – and times.

The play is a must-see, especially because it features the energetic work of aspiring 12- and 13-year-old actors, whose great talent and humor compensates for their youth. The comedy is witty and their ability to inhabit their roles is amazing.

The concept of the play is quite challenging for teenagers. Over the course of the play’s thirteen-show run, the student actors will exchange parts, to play a different role with each staging.

This grueling regime not only requires the players to have an outstanding memory but an ability to put themselves into the shoes of a new character for every show.

For the children, “Inspector Toutou” is a play that carries them through the classics.

As for the grown-ups, this one-hour-long piece is a precious moment that makes them feel, again, like admiring children.

“Inspector Toutou” (in French) continues until June 5. Ticket prices range from LL15,000 to LL30.000. For information, call Masrah Monnot at 01-20-24-22 (after 3 p.m.).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 30, 2011, on page 16.
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