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REVIEW: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings at the Ottawa Children’s Festival/Riverbank Arts Centre

/By / May 20, 2023

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings combines minimalism to bring the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic short story onstage. 

The Ottawa Children’s Festival at Arts Court has imported the production by Dan Colley and the Riverbank Arts Centre from Newbridge, Ireland. With a breezy 40-minute run-time, the play is marketed as a family affair. Adults and children alike will appreciate its healthy balance of darkly comedic overtones and sincere charm. 

A fourth-wall smashing, zany duo of storytellers (Karen McCartney and Manus Halligan) introduce us to Marquez’s original tale through simultaneously cringe-worthy physical comedy and direct address. The story is about Pelayo and Elisenda, their sick child, and a house infested with crabs — who really stink. The downtrodden couple stumbles upon the titular Very Old Man With Enormous — yet flightless — Wings and community debate as to whether he is an angel ensues. The townsfolk trap him in a parasite-ridden chicken coop and turn him into a mystical sideshow spectacle for fast cash. An otherwise mime-confined Storyteller (also Halligan) eagerly whispers in the ear of his spokesman companion (also McCartney), who deviously informs the audience that there will also be a cattle prod involved.

While Marquez’s original story may critique the harsh treatment of others, McCartney’s Storyteller sardonically proclaims that “there are no lessons in this story” and we really shouldn’t be looking for any. This tongue-in-cheek comedic tone prevails until the finale and breaks the tension of the darker plot elements. The play reminds the audience through the Storyteller’s quippy interjections and physical comedy that we are watching a spectacle about a spectacle — oh, the irony. 

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings features a bare-bones kitchen set complete with a table and bookshelf designed by Andrew Clancy. The table acts as a stage in its own right for a cast of miniature clay figurines, puppeteered by the storytellers. These quaint sequences are captured with Go-Pro cameras and projected on a center-stage rectangular screen designed by Eoin Kilkenny. McCartney’s animating voiceover (think South Park), Halligan’s atmospheric vocalizations, landscape-painted backdrops, and handheld flashlights bring the crude clay “actors” to life on the screen. 

The minimalist figurines and uncanny, yarn-ball-headed, stick-man-inspired puppet as Pelayo and Elisenda’s child offer alternative approaches to the advanced technology of some modern puppetry, stripping back the art to its most primitive forms. These practical effects, combined with the calming intimacy of the black box space, give A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings a whimsical, campfire storytelling feeling, and the production never takes itself too seriously. 

Halligan and McCartney are standouts in this production as the bumbling yet intensely passionate, clownish storytellers, along with the other characters they play. McCartney juxtaposes awkward, meek, and unassuming line deliveries with ones of rich impassioned conviction, to great comedic effect. A highlight is her rambling as the voices of the clay figurine masses who pester the Very Old Man for miracles as a local religious spectacle. 

Halligan compliments McCartney’s narrations with a biological soundboard of vocalizations such as but not limited to gobbling crabs, shrieking wind, and chickens clucking. Halligan portrays the Very Old Man With Enormous Wings with incomprehensible, slurred sailor grumbles that capture the character’s suffering at the hands of the society around him. These moments, shot close up by the Go-Pro and projected head-on to the audience, offer skewed perspectives of the Old Man suffering as a spectacle in a way described in the story as “a cataclysm in repose.”

Alma Kelliher’s sound design initially includes recorded classical piano and violin music; then jazzy tunes accentuate escalating narrative elements. Perhaps most memorably, McCartney’s monologues as the storyteller elevate to bombastic chanting, and then full-on musical renditions of various plot elements. When Pelayo and Elisenda charge the carnival of pilgrims a fee to access the chicken coop, McCartney’s storyteller sings phrases such as “Merch, Merch, Merchandise!,” the Internet-friendly slang offering contemporary connections to the profits made from spectacles and the fandoms surrounding them. 

Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting contrasts between homey, warm, golden tones, and distant, cool, blue and white ones to showcase Pelayo and Elisenda’s temporary riches made possible by their exploitation of the pitiful Old Man. He takes flight at the conclusion of the piece, an image  made possible by a white spotlight on a simple angel wings puppet fluttering around the stage. The lighting transforms the minimalist object into a visual force of reverence and awe–chills and all.

Walking into this play, I expected a relatively child-friendly, moralistic tale of magical whimsy and puppetry, with a few off-hand jokes for parents. Instead, Colley’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings is a refreshing take on a literary classic that is instructive for all with its themes of spectacle and society’s fanatical mistreatment towards anything outside the norm. This play prompts audiences of all ages to consider the value of stripped-down approaches to the art of puppetry in creative ways. 

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings closed on May 14. Learn more about the Ottawa Children’s Festival here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Bridget Rielly

Bridget Rielly

Bridget a B.A graduate in English with a concentration in Drama Studies and a minor in history. She is now completing a master's degree at Carleton University in English with a focus on Canadian theatrical traditions. In her spare time, she is an avid home cook, budding crocheter, and teaches swimming lessons.



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