It was already some enchanted evening even before we were ushered onto the moored show boat. The calm Whau River contained multitudes of quicksilver sprats; the setting moon was a thin red crescent.

It seems the intent of director/designer Stephen Bain, one of our most whimsical theatre-makers, is that we drink in the joy of the outdoor setting before entering the barge's simple, glowing tent.

Water, lights and sky whet our senses to receive the incense, animation and puppet absurdities inside. In the tiny space we even see sensory organs - eyes and a nose - sensing us and performing (for) us.

But first, a prologue: A conscientious stage manager (Jeremy Randerson, initially in prosaic high-vis) lifts up multiple trap-doors in the stage floor and gives the ostensible pre-show four-minute warning to those underneath (actually, the only other performer is the equally hard-working Jenny McArthur; intricate performance design is by Sarah-Jane Blake).


Later on, Randerson stolidly checks that the theatre curtains are working and then presents a diagram of how the pulleys work. Thus, in an hour of revelations - pop-up entrances, masks and boxes - the stage manager also exposes what's usually kept hidden: The cogs behind the magic, the legs paddling furiously underneath, to keep the artifice afloat.

But it's not a reveal made in a killjoy, bubble-popping spoiling spirit. Instead, the character delights in the logistics, showing us that clever cogs are magic of their own kind.

Sean Curham's lighting changes from stage-manager white to pretty red and mysterious blue-purple, depending on the mood, while spotlighting is handled by an ordinary office light. But, in this series of non-narrative vignettes, the atmosphere is set most intensely by Jeff Henderson's vivid music. Sometimes edgy and urgent, the soundtrack includes piercing high-hats, free-form jazz, marching beats, comic-creepy arpeggios, psychedelic electric organ and a soupcon of carnival.

The last couple of segments could be tighter or offer more, but overall this is the Fringe Festival at its fringy best, for $20.

What: The Floating Theatre
When & where: Saunders Reserve, Avondale, to Saturday; Viaduct Marina, Central City, March 8-11
Reviewer: Janet McAllister