Mythology, folk tales and fairy tales, Carl Sandburg and Lewis Carroll, puppets, dancers and mimes, self-esteem, moral values and kite flying--all were part of the 12th Theatre Festival for Young Audiences held over the weekend at Cal State San Bernardino.
The quality of the performances at the event sponsored by the Southern California Educational Theatre Assn. was as variable as the weekend’s weather.
Saturday, bleakly cold, started with a choice offering. Yellow Brick Road Shows from Costa Mesa presented “Primal Myths,” a collection of stories invented by primitive peoples in an effort to explain their own creation.
A trio of women performed, dressed in tunics of rough cloth. Director Rita Grauer narrated, smoothly shaping the ancient tales, some humorous, some horrific. Jo Larsen was the graceful dancer--and the heroic god who slayed an evil dragon goddess: “Half of her body made the arc of the sky . . . her breasts became the hills and from her eyes flowed the great water.”
Benay Radin, with Larsen, provided music on drums, gourds and wooden chimes suspended from bamboo poles. Peter Ward’s taped music was haunting and powerful.
Each tale had its own poetry and Grauer presented none more movingly than the story of Genesis.
It was an auspicious start. More top quality was on tap with “Imagine That!” a funny and subtle musical quest into the mind and the imagination, written by Jerry Patch and Diane King, and one of South Coast Repertory’s finest Educational Touring productions.
Other performances wobbled.
On the chilly outdoor stage, Dr. Lou Adams, a mime/storyteller, performed in silver cape, blue skullcap and red duck feet. Unpolished, but immensely likable, he presented a version of an African folk tale.
San Diego State University’s “On the Road to Edo” was an ambitious mix of 17th-Century Japanese Shogun intrigue with overtones of Greek tragedy. Maureen O’Toole’s drama, based on “Antigone,” was a heavy order for the young adult cast, and the weight of it showed.
Arizona State University picked things up with a slice of Americana. Aurand Harris’ “Ride a Blue Horse,” based on the boyhood of poet James Whitcomb Riley around the time of the Civil War, was staged well and featured Tony Hodges as the outstanding lead.
From fact to fancy: Patio Playhouse Youththeatre presented “The Lion Who Wouldn’t,” with book and lyrics by Gifford W. Wingate and music by Allan Jay Friedman. Though too long, the play was sharply directed by Jeanne Hall and its cast of young children confidently danced, sang and never rushed a line.
By 5 p.m., Saturday’s weather had a bitter bite and Cal State San Bernardino’s Imagination Players, scheduled to perform outside, had to move indoors. Their “Around the World in Seven Plays,” a lightweight presentation of familiar folk and fairy tales, was aimed at younger children, but crisp timing and stylish humor made it engaging for adults as well.
Sunday began with winds strong enough to blow all the concession booths away--two had vanished for good by the time student volunteers were able to come to the rescue--but the early morning wind died down to a pleasant breeze and the sun shone all afternoon.
The Riverside Repertory Theatre and the Sunshine Generation, two troupes of non-professional children, danced and sang on indoor stages. Outside, petticoats flying, the Butterfield Country Cloggers demonstrated their skill.
They were followed by Carl Weintraub’s fast-paced, funny and literate “We Tell Stories,” a highlight of the day.
Performing two separate shows, Weintraub and his troupe acted out stories by Lewis Carroll, Carl Sandburg, Howard Pyle and Shel Silverstein. All costumes and props came out of a battered old trunk on stage and the audience willingly participated.
A contrast in styles: mimes Andrew Glenn and Jay Miller, performing on separate stages. Glenn, in classic whiteface, was athletically graceful, but too subtle in his musical interpretations, keeping the audience at a distance. Murky taped music didn’t help.
Miller, a clown with well-focused skill and good humor, was warm and accessible. He waltzed delightfully with an elderly woman in the audience and invited eager children onstage.
Another veteran of children’s theater, the L.A. Moving Van & Puppet Show, brought its top-notch blend of campy humor and delicate beauty, using giant puppets to present a variety of stories. Seymour & Johnson Productions was a tot pleaser with its more traditional marionette show set in King Arthur’s court.
There was more: the weekend also included performances by students from Fillmore High School, Cal State Fresno, Cal State Fullerton, the Jo Cadilli Dance Academy, Ballet Folklorico, the Riverside Highland Dancers, Starmakers, a children’s troupe from Los Angeles, the LP Repertory Company, Minnikin Puppets and Penguin IV Productions, presenting an innocuous musical showcasing Las Vegas magician Brandon Scott. Mark Barrett was the show’s talented lead.
If a performance palled, there were other entertainments, from sidewalk chalk drawing to face painting. On the sprawling green campus grounds, balloons and kites flew, clowns and mimes strolled and the fragrance of hot popcorn filled the air.
Despite the uncertain weather and some lukewarm entertainment, the festive theater marathon held the obvious message: The best of children’s theater is worth seeking out.