Complicite has dazzled auds for 30 years with the aesthetic simplicity of pieces like “Mnemonic” and “The Master and Margarita.” So it’s baffling to find little of that elegant austerity in the British troupe’s first children’s play. “Lionboy,” which Marcelo Dos Santos adapted from a novel trilogy by “Zizou Corder” (the pseudonym of Louisa Young and her eight-year-old daughter), has a charming narrative about the marvelous adventures of a boy who “speaks Cat.” But from the over-plotted, hectically staged production, the show can’t decide whether it wants to be a children’s theater piece or a Harry Potter knock-off movie.
The old Complicite magic shines brightest when the show is at sea on the good ship Circe, home of Thibaudet’s Royal Floating Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. This is where Charlie Ashanti, the Lionboy played by Martins Imhangbe, a personable young thesp who moves like a dancer, finds himself when he flees his London home in the company of a mangy cat named Sergei (Eric Mallett, full of fun) and crosses the English Channel to France, in search of his missing parents.
The company is renowned for its physical agility, and the circus setting allows them to put on funny costumes and show off their skills in the roles of ringmaster, strongman, bearded lady, bareback rider and lion tamer. With a minimum of props (stools and ladders get a workout) but ingenious lighting, mighty sound effects, and plenty of percussive encouragement from composer Stephen Hiscock, the troupe puts on a grand show.
It’s during these circus scenes that Charlie earns his Lionboy nickname by speaking Cat to the six lions under the abusive control of the lion tamer. Moved by their suffering, Charlie promises to return the lions to their African homeland, a promise he makes good at the end of the act, when the entire circus troupe transform themselves into lions.
Although the show doesn’t exactly tank in the talky second act, it does trip over its own feet trying to deliver on all the extraneous action demanded by the overwritten book. (Is that side trip to Venice really necessary?) Not to mention the burden of honoring the story’s extensive lesson plan on saving the planet and other matters of political purity. Charlie’s parents, you see, are scientists who discovered a drug to wipe out a virulent disease, only to be kidnapped by agents of the “Corporacy,” the largest and most ruthless pharmaceutical company on the planet. (“It gobbles up small businesses and smashes its rivals” while destroying the environment and withholding life-saving medicine from anyone who can’t afford to pay for it.)
One wonders what the kids take away from this didactic show. To quote one little boy’s testimonial: “I really, really liked the guy with the whip.” I’m with you, kid, although I really, really liked the lions and only wished they’d bitten off a few talking heads.