The world needs more children's fringe theater. Or maybe it just needs more of Ali el-Gasseir and Jonah Von Spreecken, the creators and performers of Number 2 Quebecois Robot Detective Agency, now playing at Washington Ensemble Theater. WET describes the play as a "live weekend-morning cartoon"—nothing against cartoons, but that's a serious understatement. Quebecois Robot Detective Agency is one of the most charming shows around—on TV or on a stage.
Of course, having an audience full of children (between the ages of 2-ish and 8-ish) who are allowed to squirm and talk through the performance, playing peekaboo with the people in the seats behind them, helps. Great children's theater, like great vaudeville, drives home a simple fact—theater should be an event, a real thing with real people happening in front of a real audience, not a reproduction. When people want a sleek reproduction of something that already happened, they go to the movies. (Maybe that's why people complaining about bad theater sound so much more bitter than people complaining about a bad movie—because theater audiences are present, and in some way participants, maybe they feel more spurned and disappointed when things go wrong.)
But nothing sandblasts away the old theater calluses like sitting in a tiny theater with two smart guys making quick-witted comedy in front of small children who get nervous when the lights go out but aren't at all shy about shouting out some crazy interjection in the middle of a scene. That audience isn't arthritic, it's reacting. The actors acknowledge them and react back. And theater is nimble and fun again.
Quebecois Robot Detective Agency is about two Montreal robots, detectives who cooperate and compete with each other. We first meet the "number two" detective, a lovable schlub in a trench coat named Phillipe Marleaux (Von Spreecken), who is only second- best because his battery is weak and he has to stay plugged into the wall, inhibiting his ability to fight crime. (His electric tether is one of those retractable dog leashes people sometimes use on their own children—I like to think that's a subversive jab at parents.) Then we meet the "number one" detective, Djohnny François (el-Gasseir), who winks and has a theme song and is better at finding clues. But the plot is just a canvas for the two actors and their team to have fun with themselves and their audience. Set designer Cameron Irwin made a giant Rubik's Cube out of cardboard boxes as one of the play's puzzles, and costume designer Kat Stromberger built an inventive wig with speakers that broadcast the voice of a lady-robot (played in drag by el-Gasseir).
The whole thing reeks of enviable fun.