The forest is a realm of fantastic ethereal beasts. At least that's true for a spate in Carlo Gozzi's folkloric comic romance, King Stag, performed by the American Repertory Theatre from Massachusetts. Allegedly appealing to adults and children of five and over, this production boasts masks and puppets by Julie Taymor – the creator behind Disney's ethnically-inspired staging of The Lion King.
The most magical scene comes after Gozzi's oriental King Deramo completes his search for a sincere bride and heads into the woods to hunt with his villainous Prime Minister. There we behold a procession of glowing drawings, like primitive cave paintings coming to life. Leaping deer and scuttling lizards flit across a screen, accompanied by chimes or pattering drums. Two prancing bucks also materialise as life-size, delicately translucent rod puppets.
Regrettably, beyond this, King Stag boils down to a panto. Taymor's flamboyant costumes and masks blend elements of Japanese Kabuki and Indonesian shadow plays with the commedia dell'arte archetypes beloved of Gozzi. But this sometimes results in a tacky mishmash – like the spuriously inserted pop songs. The ensemble's spoof-balletic twirls are unsophisticated, too, while the plot – involving migrations of Deramo's soul – is convoluted. It's hard to say who was fidgeting more: me or the five-year-olds.
Meanwhile, more world drama is rolling into Scotland as the Edinburgh International Festival gets under way. An eerie fog and the pounding of turbines filled the Royal Lyceum for Novecento, a monologue presented by Quebec's Théâtre de Quat'Sous and directed by François Girard (known for films including The Red Violin).
Hunched and grizzled, Tom McCamus plays narrator Tim Tooley. He's a haunted jazz trumpeter who, prior to the Second World War, met a genius aboard a liner called The Virginian. Now he rekindles memories of that musical legend (christened Novecento because he was found abandoned on the first day of the 20th century). He grew up at sea and developed into a prodigy pianist, freewheeling beyond jazz. Yet he ultimately holed-up and sank with the ship rather than choosing to negotiate the sprawling post-War world onshore.
The Legend of 1900, Giuseppe Tornatore's screen version of this saga by Alessandro Baricco, sank pretty much without trace. Novecento is intrinsically a novella or a radio script. However, Girard's beautifully engineered staging – relying on storytelling without action – proves enthralling. Baricco knows how to spin a yarn and Novecento's ivory-tinkling duel with a worldly rival generates tension like High Noon – only on the high seas and high Cs. Throughout, McCamus' soft drawl is both lulling and suspenseful. The soaring girders of François Séguin's set are also stunning, like some charred industrial cathedral.
Occasionally the slanting film noir-style lighting is self-conscious and some might find Novecento an irksome mystic hero. But this is also a philosophically rich mediation on creativity and competition, purity and parochialism, liberty, one's limits and fate. The infuriating news is that International Festival director Brian McMaster – possibly smarting from damning theatre reviews in 2000 – is offering only blink-and-you'll-miss-it programming this year. So by the time you are reading this article, Théâtre de Quat'Sous will have packed their trunks.
Conversely, Soho Theatre Company's production of Office shouldn't be in the International Festival at all. Budding playwright Shan Khan won this year's Verity Bargate Award, but such hasty promotion by McMaster and STC's director Abigail Morris just leaves this script looking below par. Office is a predictably darkening comedy about drug-pushing buddies loitering in King's Cross. Avin Shah's Sharky is a fast-talking wide boy, Mark Tonderai's Showtime his seemingly chilled mate. Double-dealing undermines their supposed friendship. The dramatist has a sharp ear for street slang. However, this production loses credibility as several of Morris' cast are more eager to amuse than be convincingly hard-bitten.
More commendable Fringe fare is at the Traverse with Tiny Dynamite by Abi Morgan. It's a collaboration between Paines Plough director Vicky Featherstone and the hitherto mainly physical founders of Frantic Assembly, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. With echoes of Jules et Jim and depicting yet more shaky loyalties, they sensitively chart a love triangle formed when two young pals – Graham's protective Lucien and Hoggett's risk-prone Anthony – are smitten by Jasmine Hyde's happy-go-lucky Madeleine.
Tiny Dynamite is not as intellectually stimulating as Morgan's time-bending play, Splendour. The spare dialogue sounds naïve at first and the symbolism – centring on Anthony's lightning-scarred chest – is heavily underlined. But the simplicity of Julian Crouch's set – bare boards with a plunge pool below – is finely judged. Verbal exchanges and the subdued choreography are charged with sensual longing. Graham and Hoggett, shaking off awkwardness, prove they can act while Hyde's magnetic stage debut reveals a star in the making.
'King Stag': Barbican, EC2 (020 7638 8891) to 2 Sept; 'Office': Soho Theatre, W1 (020 7478 0100) Wed to 8 Sept; 'Tiny Dynamite': Traverse, Edinburgh (0131 228 1404) to SatReuse content