June 2009 Archives

What are they teaching my 2 year old? Part III


Today I had the privilege of enjoying a lovely show in the pleasantly icebergish Long Center. It's 106 every day here, I cannot express how nice it was to sit in a space and just feel cool. But even if I hadn't been thrillingly not melty, I still would have thoroughly enjoyed the show we saw, Pattern Nation, as produced by Pollyanna Theatre Company.

I hadn't heard of Pollyanna before and didn't know what to expect when I saw the write up in the Chronicle. But now I am very interested in seeing what they do in the future, including their children's version of The Tempest coming up in August. One of the shows I remember seeing as a small one is a shorter version of Macbeth at Stage One, so even though I think Ollie might be a bit young for Shakespeare, there's no harm in trying. 

Pattern Nation owes a fair debt to the Paperbag Players, my favorite historical children's theatre company. Like the Paperbag Players, their sets and costumes were simple and looked made out of homemade things, the main set piece/prop was a cardboard box. The set consisted of a backdrop that said Pattern Nation with different scraps of fabric on it, there were some platforms to the right, and three circles in green, blue, and yellow painted on the floor. The two dimensional props, representing food and other things, were all charmingly decoupage with different papers and fabrics for a vintage patchworky feel. I was really impressed with how cute they were.

When we came into the theatre, Red was snoozing fitfully on the platforms (making up the fourth color circle) and his wiggling and flopping made the kids giggle. The show had no real narrative, though I guess it is the third part in a series. Red, Blue, and Green were anthropomorphized guys, each with a distinct personality. Yellow was a woman. A voice announces overhead that "Today's Pattern is Boxes" (a touch I thought maybe overtly too much like preschool television) and the characters begin a series of sketches about patterns and shapes and colors that Red, who is tired and not feeling well, resists taking part in. When he does try to get involved, he can't get the patterns right. The kids all thought this was hilarious, as they knew what shape was supposed to come up next and here this goofy grown up couldn't get with the program. Red in particular was hilarious, with a mugging expressive face that perfectly brought his rebellious character to life.

The main sketch was a large cardboard box being delivered to the friends and them figuring out what it was (a box) but then what it could be used for (a cat bed-- the cat being spot on embodied by Blue, a pirate ship, a limeade stand, a puppet theatre). Along the way there were songs and silly dancing, different emotions expressed, and unlike the rote Annie, though the audience today was unfairly tiny, the four actors in this show acted their hearts out for their child audience.

I loved this show. I thought it was extremely well written, fantastically acted, and well designed and directed. I have to say, I wish the story had been a bit more of a through line and a bit less of a sketch comedy thing, though I do know from reading about educational theory that this is supposed to be the way to best keep small one's attention spans. So since this show was all about entertaining the small one, my personal structural preference takes a back seat.

This was not quite the visual extravaganza The Very Hungry Caterpillar was, but this was in every way my definition of good children's theatre and I encourage anybody with a small one to go see the next Pattern show that pops up.  

What are they teaching my 2 year old? Part II

Today's review is a production of the touring company of Annie that came through the Bass Concert Hall. We attended a Saturday matinee, it was us, about a zillion other children, and some disgruntled childless couples (it's a matinee of Annie, geniuses). We managed to score some fantastic seats at the last minute, and so were sitting in the second row center. From there we could see everything on stage extremely well, along with the pit orchestra (mini orchestra? There were like, six dudes down there). That much, Ollie really liked.

Given the last production we saw, honestly, it staggers me to say that as a family we enjoyed this (expensive, professional) production less. At least with the Story there was the constant bafflement at the plot, the enjoyment of watching our friend play in the band, and the unpredictability of kids. With this show I have to say the highlight for the grown-ups was discovering the Bass sells Fat Tire and you can take it to your seat with you, and for Ollie it was the rare appearances of Sandy, the dog, who received an audible gasp from the children and a smattering of applause when he/she first took the stage.

It's been a long time since I've seen Annie, and I guess what struck me about this production was the missed opportunities here. The parallels between the world of Annie, with the homeless, poor, starving and government loathing citizens and our own time were obvious. So why not make more of them? Do you know who sits in orphanages and the foster care system? Teenagers, differently abled children, and children of color. So don't give me an orphanage full of tiny adorable white moppets (note, there was one girl of color). Miss Hannigan is stuck in the impossible situation of being the sole 24 hour care for children with no resources whatsoever. Is there a way to point the finger at the society that forgot these kids and not make her such a sex-crazed shrill harpy? Why were the poor people so clean? Were they upper middle class citizens who took on crazy mortgages and lost their homes? How can we point to that (actually, that one's easy for me. In the shanty town have them living out of Hummers).

Why not have a black Annie? I mean, Jesus, think about all the questions that opens up. There are tons of people out there raising children of different races then their own. All the time they face issues about how to expose children to their own cultures, the kids face issues about not fitting into one world or the next, as well as ethical issues about how these kids ended up in orphanages and foster care to begin with. Warbucks is basically the original Angelina Jolie. How could Annie address this?  

Why not set it in the present time? Sure, some of this stuff would seem weird (FDR, for example), but whatever. The audience would go with it. Let's get into race and class issues that we should be addressing in NYC (everybody was so white!!!). Let's get into technology and greed. Let's look at the fact that in the end Annie gets to live in the mansion and her friends are going back to who knows what.

Ok, so putting aside the time I spent reconceiving the entire production as a whole, let's look at this one. Ollie and I disagreed on Annie. Ollie liked her, and got antsy when she wasn't onstage. I thought she had an outstanding belting voice, an extremely nasally lower register, and absolutely no stage presence. Given that I was so close up, I could see how she rarely had any expression on her face at all. She went through the motions, but she felt none of it. I know it's a kid, and I'm trying to make some space for her, but many of the other kids were much more engaged in the roles and much more present on stage.

This was true for most performers, with the exception of Miss Hannigan and oh, god, I've forgotten her name. The secretary lady. While I wasn't thrilled with either of their characterizations, I have to say they embraced their roles with gusto, were there the whole time, and had lovely singing voices for their characters. They, of all people on stage, truly seemed like the wanted to be there and wanted us to have a good show.

The rest of the group seemed like they wanted to collect a paycheck, more or less. I was particularly baffled by the guy playing the cop, among his many roles. He was playing it like a mustache twirling villain crossed with a dude from a Quentin Tarintino movie. It was bizarre. I decided later that maybe he was trying to differentiate his various characters, but dude, dial it down some.

The sets and drops in general were servicable, though we quite liked the shantytown under the bridge. There was also a moment with snow coming down outside the glass windows of Warbucks's atrium that was lovely. The costumes, however, man. These were by far the cleanest, classiest homeless people I have ever seen. Being so close, it was obvious that everyone was spotless and without rip or tear. Patches were neatly attached to clothing that obviously had no need for patching (especially such perfectly square ones). There were some homeless ladies wearing coats I would have killed for, they were so cool and in mint condition. Poor Annie had to wear the traditional red dress and wig for the finale and a less flattering outfit they could not have found for that girl. Also, costumes were in general two to three inches too short, and we could not have seen more cooches if we'd gone to the Moulin Rouge.

Overall, Ollie dug the dog and the scenes with the kids. The whole subplot with Hannigan colluding with her brother to dupe Warbucks bored Ollie to tears. By the end he was getting really, really antsy. This was not a major success for any of us involved. Though he looked really cute in his dress up clothes and shoes.

Also, it is not in any way appropriate to sell small girls pink baby doll t-shirts with "Easy Street" spelled out in rhinestones on them.