by SOPHIE KERMAN
Did you know how turtles make it through the winter? Ever wonder whether they dream? With the help of their signature giant puppets, In the Heart of the Beast Theatre (HOBT) uses real wintry adaptations as a jumping-off point to imagine what animals think about during the cold winter months. But if a play about sleeping animals doesn’t seem like an immediate attention-grabber, you haven’t seen Winter Dreams. The pure imaginative energy of this production enchants adults and children alike, offering definite proof that kids don’t need flashy colors or cutesy voices to be entertained, and that grown-ups too can be entranced by the natural world.
The magic of “Winter Dreams” begins with the HOBT’s inventive and unexpected use of the theatrical space. Duane Tougas‘s set makes use of the whole theater, giving the audience a view of underground burrows through a series of ingenious shadow screens as well as panels that open up at various points during the production.
The puppets themselves, designed and constructed by an eighteen-person team of puppeteers and interns, populate the landscape in a way that is at once fantastically larger-than-life and utterly realistic. Playing everything from snakes to bears, the nine-person cast is impressive in their expressive re-creation of animal mannerisms, even while operating puppets that are often bigger than they are.
The production would not have succeeded, though, were it not for the smart pacing of the action by director Alison Heimstead. With comic relief by a trio of vaudevillian groundhogs, the play never goes too far into dreamlike abstraction. And special mention goes to musicians Sean Egan and Jim Parker, whose live performance (on countless different instruments) adds movement to a play with very little spoken dialogue.
It is easy to be skeptical of kid-friendly theater, particularly if you aren’t bringing kids with you. But for barely more than the price of a movie ticket, HOBT gives you a reason to suspend your disbelief. Like the animals on stage, we all start to shut down during the winter, dreaming of Florida and waiting for the distant rays of spring sunshine. But with giant puppets to charm you, make you laugh, and warm your spirits, Minnesota winter really doesn’t seem so bad after all.