When a press release hit my inbox from a “Portland-based physical theatre company” I’d never heard of saying their show, Grim and Fischer, had toured the continent, wracking up awards at fringe festivals, and was finally coming to Portland, I was intrigued, to say the least. Who was the married couple behind Wonderheads, and how was it they’d performed everywhere from Orlando to Victoria, selling out houses and winning best of fest awards, not to mention a Scion and ten grand in the national Scion Motivate Contest, but had never performed in Portland? So I headed for Ethos/IFCC for the local premiere of their masked show about a tenacious granny who takes on Death.
The evening began with a rather awkward Pixar-like short: a little-girl character named Majic (played by stage manager Emily Windler) mostly flubbing her way through a magic routine. The performer captured mischievous, girlish mannerisms, but the jokes were one-note and mostly met by slightly forced laughter.
Once grandma Fischer (Kate Braidwood) and Grim (her husband, Andrew Phoenix) took the stage, though, we knew we were in the company of skilled clowns. They wore large, beautifully-crafted masks, Grim’s balding and sneering and Fischer’s with an old-lady smirk, that gave them the proportions of animated characters.
On a stage bare but for a rocker, side table, and coat stand, Grim pursued the fragile-looking Fischer, trying to deliver death’s message in a black envelope that blasted menacing choral music whenever it was opened. But the ornery Fischer evaded his threats with MacGyver like resourcefulness. Even without words, the duo revealed almost every step of the plot and a range of emotions through skillfully stylized and often exaggerated movements of the body. The eyes of their masks were piercingly dark, feeling very much alive despite never changing in expression.
The Wonderheads: Grim and Fischer
Thru Oct 5
Although the characters and the duo’s clowning were charming, the story felt like something we’ve seen before. Slowly Fischer, with her joyful zest for life, softens the cruel but lonely Grim until finally she melts his frozen heart (the process starts to feel a little repetitious, growing rather confusing after they kill each other multiple times). They journey from cruel pursuit to a cute movie montage of youthful bestie activities, from riding roller coasters to motorcycle tomfoolery, until Grim fulfills Fischer’s final wish.
Braidwood and Phoenix are a joy to watch and certainly talented at their craft, and the show’s meditation on life and death was sweet at times—the ending rather touching—but the show lacked the novel edge I thought it would need to win fringe festivals (that said, it’s horrendously hard to add significant depth to a wordless story, so perhaps I’m asking too much). The Wonderheads say the show is not appropriate for children younger than 10, but in my mind, Grim and Fischer, like many Pixar cartoons, is ideal for children, while being beautiful and entertaining enough for adults.
During their bow, the couple announced that they will be developing a new work at the Headwaters Theatre next year. I'm excited to see what they do next. Welcome home, Wonderheads.