Immersive theater for the very young that won’t drive adults mad
|Emerald City Theatre presents|
Review by Katje Sabin (with an assist from Lincoln Gilliland)
Gotta get ’em hooked as early as possible. Emerald City Theatre Company‘s innovative kid-friendly theater space, the Little Theatre, has recently launched their second production aimed at kids age five and younger. The first of its kind in the nation, the Little Theatre offers a cozy and comfortable space for little ones to experience stagecraft in an immersive and hands-on atmosphere, and to this end, Bingo’s Birthday doesn’t disappoint.
Upon entering the Little Theatre, families find themselves in a small colorful lobby with cubbies for shoes (no shoes inside the main theater) and a few toys to keep waiting kids entertained. Then you’re ushered into the theater, a small room painted in a bright farmyard motif with boxes and cushions to sit upon. Each child’s given a large box resembling a wrapped birthday gift, and inside are several interesting (and indestructible, non-choking-hazard) items.
Created and directed by DePaul theater professor Ernie Nolan (recipient of the 2014 Illinois Theatre Association Award for Excellence in Theatre for Young Audiences), the adventure is focused upon the slippery canine Bingo, and his caretakers, Farmers Pickle and Tickle (Siblings? Playmates? Spouses? This enigmatic question is never fully addressed, leaving a touch of mystery in the mind of your erstwhile reviewer). It appears that Bingo’s natal anniversary is approaching rapidly, and the two earnest farmers must hurry to gather the appropriate accoutrements for the celebration, and enlist the help of their audience in the preparation of this time-honored kid ritual of a birthday party.
The preview crowd seemed to be toddlers and younger; I suspect slightly older children would have been able to follow the simple storyline better, but the little ones were more than happy to clap and play along with the farmers.
As the two hayseeds searched for their dog and the party items, they sang and danced their way through several standard children’s songs and familiar lessons (reinforcing dichotomies such as asleep/awake, high/low, front/back, etc.). Both actors are recent DePaul Theatre School BFA graduates, and are clearly enjoying themselves as they perform their slapstick: Alissa Sherwood is slightly exasperated but kindly Farmer Pickle, while George Booker plays a goofier, slightly dim-witted but well-meaning Farmer Tickle. Both actors use puppets in the show, and both have to deal with improvising as little ones approach them fearlessly – which they did with good humor and gentle redirecting when the unleashed babes made a break for the backstage.
There was only one time I felt things got a little out of hand. The farmers were reciting instructions for a square dance, and it went way too fast for this group. I think the music and recitation could be dropped to half-time, which would lower the chaos level and engage the children more.
Bingo himself is a rather minimal stage presence, being a dog who behaves like a cat (i.e., does not come when called). The Bingo puppet itself is a bit of an odd choice, with a flat face that does not at all resemble a dog to me…and when I scrolled through a gallery of other Emerald City productions, I figured out why: there was more than a passing resemblance to the title characters of the Little Theatre’s premiere production, The Teddy Bears Picnic, and it appears that a bear puppet was recycled as the dog.
Despite the shifting genus of the puppet, the show was a hit with the crowd. My reviewing associate the morning of the preview was my 10-year-old son Lincoln, who had this to say: "One of the things I mostly like was the doors that revealed the farm animal paintings (built into the walls of the space). I liked the cheerful music and colorful lights (by Jeff Glass). It must have taken a lot of training to make them go that well, so I was really impressed. The performers were really, really good. I loved the performances. They seemed to be nice and friendly kinds of people. Pickle’s costume was better, in my opinion, because it had a little more to it than the other costume, and I especially liked the pickle socks (the whimsical costumes were designed by Alarie Hammock). I liked the gift boxes; it was kind of funny when they were missing something and we found it. It made me feel helpful. I liked the singing and dancing too. I’d recommend this for younger kids, mostly under six years old."
One thing I especially appreciated was that this production, while aimed at small children, never talks down to them. By approaching children with respect, this show was not only bearable for this adult, but actually fun to witness. Remember the old Sesame Street programs, that shared information but never felt didactic or sickly sweet? This show echoes that sensibility, with good humor and fun that is never at the expense of anyone.
If you’ve got a morning or afternoon to spend with a favorite young person, this show is an excellent way to inculcate an early love of theatre.
Bingo’s Birthday continues through January 4th at Emerald City’s Little Theatre, 2933 N. Southport (map), with performances Fridays 10am, Saturdays 9am, 11:30am and 1:30pm, Sundays 10am. Tickets are $8-$15, and are available online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at EmeraldCityTheatre.com. (Running time: 45 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Tom McGrath
behind the scenes