by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
The two productions that constituted “Puppet Weekend” with my toddler daughter were startlingly different approaches to celebrating the natural world. In attempting to figure how to write about the performances, I thought about Kid Enkidu’s inclusion of a bit of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the contrast between his writing and Emily Dickinson’s. Okay, stay with me here. I promise I’ll get to the part where you can figure out if your kids will like either of the shows or if you will (they’re both excellent for different reasons).
And here is where I shamelessly reduce the difference between the work of Dickinson and Whitman (maybe I should be using Bruce Springsteen and Radiohead). Dickinson’s pieces are often considered short, simple and narrative (an account of connected events or a story); whereas Whitman is known for his long, lyrical and complex poems. I’m thinking of lyrical as an “expression of emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way” (thank you, Google Dictionary). So The Children’s Theatre’s production of The Biggest Little House in the Forest is Dickinson, and In the Heart of the Beast Theatre’s “Kid Enkidu” is Whitman (if you’re familiar with the work of both theaters, you won’t be surprised).
Greeting us as we entered the Children’s Theatre’s lobby were five boxes of colorful slipper socks with faces sown on them. After we collectively anthropomorphized our feet, Autumn Ness rolled into the room in pigtails and bright colors on a scooter. She explained seating (kids are encouraged to sit in the first three rows of benches) and led us (Pied Piper-like) into the performance space. Clusters of red and orange leaves on branches hung down, effectively creating a cozy forest clearing.
At the front of the stage was a small house on a dais amidst bright green rocks. Ness, wonderfully expressive, wove a story that began with Bernice the Butterfly discovering the house and moving in. A catalog of woodland creatures stumble onto the house and want to live there too, including a wet and cold bear in coveralls whose attempts to warm himself on the chimney result in catastrophe. Ness, a dynamic one-person show, provided a distinct voice for each animal, sound effects that emanated from the many pockets of her apron, and bubbles. Yes, bubbles. To the delight of the kids (maybe a parent or two, but I’ll never tell), she wandered through the audience blowing bubbles during a scene where the animals were taking a bubble bath in their beloved house. There is plenty of audience participation, and the story (adapted by Rosanna Staffa) is simple, succinct and entertaining. Ness is marvelous and the set joyful. This performance is definitely tailored to an under age 7 audience, including its length.
Like Whitman, In the Heart of the Beast Theatre provides an impressionistic experience. At performance start, the curtain was lit from behind, revealing a ghostly forest of subdued tones and spidery branches. Martin Dosh is responsible for the entrancing music (there is no speaking). Then light projections transformed the space magically from sunset to star-filled sky; there were a couple of gasps in the audience as the room became the natural world.
Performers in animal masks lithely moved about the stage. Gathering around an enormous tortoise shell, the animals took turns discarding giant playing cards. As each was put down, the images from the cards lit up and scaled forward into the sky to reveal constellations. Gradually, as the animals summoned humans (life-sized puppets) to life from bits of yarn, the beginnings of a creation myth were built. These animals watched over and intervened in the lives of two children who become adults. The sequence portaying one child’s love for a deer and the other child’s jealousy was particularly moving.
According to the folks at HOBT, the production (directed by Bart Buch) “searches between veils of the world, deciphering love poem patterns of nature to unlock the imagination, unfold the heart, free the spirit, and find the beloved.” “Kid Enkidu” is wondrous and strange and riveting for both kids and parents.
Dickinson and Whitman, Springsteen and Radiohead, “The Biggest Little House in the Forest” and “Kid Enkidu.” My three year old daughter loved them both. Our discussions over the weekend included speculation about how many bears can fit in a little house, and questions about where the stars came from.
The Biggest Little House in the Forest, adapted by Rosanna Staffa, based on the book by Djemma Bider, and directed by Peter C. Brosius, presented by the Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404. January 24-March 17, 2013. Tickets at http://www.childrenstheatre.org.
Kid Enkidu, directed by Bart Buch, presented by In the Heart of the Beast Theatre, 1500 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55407. January 25-February 10, 2013. Tickets at http://www.hobt.org/.