Felines often get a bad rap in folktales as sidekicks to evil witches or symbols of bad luck. It's quite the opposite in "Malika, Queen of the Cats." Based on a traditional story from Palestine and adapted from the book "Sitti and the Cats" by Sally Bahous, "Malika," written by Tears of Joy artistic director Nancy Aldrich, features a royal cat who is a benevolent figure. She's also a glamourpuss, decked in a jeweled headdress and other spangled Arabic garb that jingles like a belly dancer's outfit as she moves rhythmically across the stage.
Malika isn't just a powerful monarch: She's a dispenser of magic, and in this charming story for kids three and up, she's a mysterious figure who lives in a cave full of human-like kitties near a Palestinian village. She and her tribe keep track of the various villagers, their behavior and their needs. When Sitti, a kindly but poor old lady who is always thinking of others, helps a kitten stuck up a tree, a miracle occurs. She's swept off to Malika's palatial residence, and shown an evening of entertainment, including a delightful whirling dervish cat (a rod puppet, we learn later, attached to a fishing reel) and a three-cat chorus line with lavish costumes. Sitti's gifts for the evening are sacks of garlic and onion skins, which puzzle her, but she takes them good-naturedly, and puts them under her bed as instructed, where, predictably, a glittering transformation takes place.
Um Yusef, on the other hand, is a disgruntled senior citizen, who's stingy and rude, never thinking of others. She sees Sitti's good fortune, and wants some of it. But Um Yusef's transformation has more to do with changing her behavior than acquiring riches, and with Sitti's loving help and generosity, she undergoes a major attitude adjustment. Kindness and consideration are cultural values we all share, whether we're from the Near East, the U.S. or Timbuktu.
Despite the morality tale aspects of the hour-long piece, there's plenty of humor for youngsters and adults to enjoy. The sight gags are great fun, including a smaller version of Sitti, then an even smaller one, as she travels to the cat's cave and moves further away from us into the picturesque hills. Malika's daughter who is rescued by Sitti acts and talks like a modern teen-ager, and we laugh at what's familiar in this unfamiliar place. Sitti's pet chickens are great fun, warming their feathers by the fire and jumping into bed with her to get warm. Puppeteers Jonathan Owicki and Hanna Long keep the action moving with their quick-change puppetry skills.
Jason Miranda's appealing set design creates a stunning yet practical backdrop for the puppets, a mini-panorama of hills, sky and gnarled trees. It consists of two movable backdrops that appear to float and glow against a dark stage, creating a setting for the village houses on one side, then when reversed, they become picturesque village streets. Rose Etta Menger's careful lighting creates a sense of luminosity from within the set pieces, which are dappled by shadows that help create a sense of mystery within this fantasy world. Arabic-style music composed and recorded by Tarik and Julia Banzi enhances the performance.
Audience members were taught a few words in Arabic before the show, and when it was over Owicki and Long demonstrated how some of the rod puppets work.
"Malika" is directed by award-winning guest artist Jon Ludwig, artistic director of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Ga.. The idea for the play unofficially began when a delegation of theater directors from Palestine visited Tears of Joy four years ago to share ideas about working with young people. According to program notes, they found much in common to discuss, and Aldrich came up with the idea to honor their culture with "Malika." That culture has spread into the lobby of the Winningstad Theatre where the Arab American Cultural Center and the Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University, two of the show's sponsors, have created a vibrant exhibit of traditional clothing, fabric, vessels and more.