Emanon Theater at Halsted Theatre Centre
When I was a kid I used to watch Romper Room religiously. I was fascinated by the first segment, when the nice lady looked out of the television set and said, "I see Billy, and Bobby, and I see Suzie . . ." All those kids were so lucky, I thought. The lady on TV said hello to them. And I just kept waiting for the day when the lady would say, "And I see Maura . . ."
Right. Like she would "see" anybody with a name like Maura, or Latonya, or Petger. But I was a kid. And there's something magical for kids when an actor recognizes their existence. So while I can't claim to share their excitement, I think I know why the dozen or so kids at the Halsted Theatre Centre had such a great time watching Emanon Theater's Aesop's Fables.
Aesop's Fables is pure kid stuff. In other words, I thought it was pretty stupid, but most kids under seven would probably love it. As the audience wanders in, four actors (Joseph Albright, Geoff Coates, Laura Pruden, and Tiffany U. Trent) are playing around onstage like children, apparently having a lot of the kind of fun kids would like. Using set pieces that resemble big wooden blocks, they construct a pantheon of sorts. One of them yells "Cookies!" and they all run offstage except one (Pruden). She stands there like a shy child, smiles at the kids in the audience, and then begins talking with them.
The kids are hooked. She is really talking with them, speaking words that communicate directly to three- and four-year-olds. She opens a large book attached to the top of the building-block structure, points to the words, and reads, "Three Bulls." The other three actors run out playing basketball. "No, no, no!" she tells them. "Not three Bulls, three bulls!" Pointing her fingers and placing them on top of her head like horns, she snorts and stomps her feet.
The other three slowly catch on that they're supposed to be animals and transform themselves into three bulls named Michael, Scotty, and Horace. Then Pruden begins the story of a lion who wanted to eat the bulls. She becomes the lion and--thrill of thrills--asks the audience to help her roar. The kids turn their hands into paws with huge claws and roar. In other words, they actually become part of the show they're watching. That's big stuff.
Director Lisa Bany seems to understand what makes kids and parents tick. Each of the seven fables is told in a simple, lighthearted, entertaining manner. Since Aesop's fables tend to be morally instructive, the messages here come across loud and clear. More important, in each fable the kids get to help out in some way. Even the shy ones and the ones with uncommon names get to climb up onstage at the end and act out "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." From a kid's perspective, nothing could be more exciting.
Theatre of the Reconstruction
More suitable for the sophisticated 8- to 12-year-old crowd is Theatre of the Reconstruction's Sweet Company, a play with music about homeless people, cats, mice, rats, and cockroaches. Sweet Company is a quirky but highly entertaining piece of children's theater written by Glennie Wilding-White and directed by Michael Rassel. Wilding-White--a gentle-looking gray-haired lady--plays keyboards in the So-So Subway Band, which provides an excellent melange of sweet, funky, and bluesy music to accompany Wilding-White's sweet, funky, and blue story.
Sweet Company examines what happens to some of the tenants in a low-income apartment building after it burns to the ground. When the existing social structure is destroyed, the cat ends up sharing a place with the mouse; the cockroach and rat become partners in nasty evilness; and the human, Maria, ends up on a park bench, befriended by a homeless guy named Matthew to whom she used to give money. Needless to say, none is a happy camper.
This play takes a compassionate look at poverty and homelessness. It's told from the bottom of the heap looking up, not down, which gives it a certain painful truthfulness rarely found in plays for kids.
At the same time it feels like a Sunday comic strip, with cockroaches playing the harmonica, cats doing a soft-shoe shuffle, and humans singing sweet duets. And of course it has a happy ending. The cast gives an all-out, whiz-bang performance (especially James Thoresen as Scuttle the Cockroach), and the So-So Subway Band is far better than so-so. Lighting cues were sometimes late, and the show started a bit early, causing much of the audience to interrupt the proceedings while trying to find a seat. But hopefully these are not the kind of problems that repeat themselves.