Thursday, May 7, 2015

International Children's Theater Festival (2015)

The Star Keeper
Theatrede l'OEil, Canada
Like so many things these days, the International Children's Theater Festival (ICTF) caught me entirely by surprise. Now in it's sixth year, this tremendous event brings a half-dozen companies from around the world to present works for child audiences.

The past several years have for me been a crash-course in drama for young audiences, attending the One Theatre World festival in 2013, trying to take in as many performances at the ICTF as possible, and of course enjoying and developing work for our own Talespinner Children's Theatre on the near west side.

I had already composed a draft of Adventures In Slumberland before meeting Finn Kruckmeyer and experiencing the wonders of my first ICTF productions. At that time, I was still hesitant to go certain places with a children's piece. Rosalynde & The Falcon was an exercise in exploring those gray areas we as adults aren't supposed to share with children, lest they misunderstand, or learn the wrong lesson.

The three productions I have seen so far at the International Children's Theater Festival break so many commonly held rules of behavior it is breathtaking, liberating, and in some cases drop-dead astonishing.

Robin Hood
Visible Fictions (Scotland)
Visible Fictions are two guys in contemporary street dress, who together tell a fast-paced but faithful tale of Robin Hood using (apparently) nothing but cardboard boxes, one shopping cart and a surprising number of snack-sized bags of Lay's potato chips. They slip in a few topical references - one has a big thing for Beyoncé - but it is the dedication to the words which give their production such energy and force, especially when delivered in that adorable accent. They pronounce "Hood" like it has an umlaut.

Tom Flanagan/Strut & Fret (Australia)
The next two shows we took in, however, don't have any words at all. KAPUT featuring Tom Flanagan and presented by Strut & Fret is an anarchic and hysterical clown show that had me bleating in disbelief for an entire hour. Flanagan's Chaplinesque stylings were only one part of the entertainment, I was more astonished by how many things he did that you're just not supposed to do in a theater, especially one filled with children.

You can't throw popcorn! You can't throw a child out of the theater! You can't kiss a teacher!

It was endless, one surprise after another. The strength of this show, however, and all good productions, is a story in which the characters are deeply invested. In this case it was pretty simple - our man is a projectionist, and in the effort to show the film, he destroys the theater. Simple as that.

The Star Keeper from Theatre 'OEil took our child audience to an unusual place to tell a story simple to describe but amazing to see. This is a puppet show of a worm-like creature and its relationship with a star. It's a dark show, and by that I mean dimly lit to highlight the puppets and nothing else.

Our matinee audience was honest is their reactions, which is a good thing, I think. At the outset a wizened old man tends to a light socket and a child observed, "This is a scary part." I didn't find it scary, but then I realized my own son would probably have said the same thing not too long ago. Dark + strange = scary. But it's not scary at all, it's a gentle production, if bizarre, the stuff of dreams.

One request, though. Adults: teachers, parents, and otherwise ... stop shushing the children. Their honest reactions to the work are why these artists have come here, from all over the world. Your attempts to silence them are, how shall I put it? It is simply not appropriate behavior in a theater.

The Sixth Annual International Children's Theater Festival continues at Playhouse Square through May 10, 2015.

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