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Theatrefaire Aiming to Make Children Theatergoers for Life

With a drawl as thick as maple syrup oozin’ down a stack of hot cakes, storyteller Eric Kern promises a tale that will “stick to you like pea-nutty butter sticks to the roof of your mouth.” Then, for the next 45 minutes, the 17-year-old actor, a central figure in Irvine Valley Theatrefaire for Children’s production of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” spins a countrified version of the classic story that seems to delight young and old.

The play, which runs through July 22 in the Irvine Valley College Forum Theatre, is the eighth season-opener for the children’s theater company.

Stories that stick in the minds of young audiences is the goal of Theatrefaire, says Blake Gould, the group’s artistic director.

“If a child returns to see a show and something sticks in his memory, it’s a memory that will last a lifetime,” said Gould, a theater arts instructor who, with his wife, Charlene, founded the group in 1982. “Theater habits begin in childhood. The way we see it, we’re helping to develop audiences for all the performing arts.”

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Irvine Valley Theatrefaire presents two to three children’s productions each summer on the college campus. Funded in part by the college, the shows feature local actors and surprisingly high production values. The combination seems successful, according to Gould--last year’s three-play season attracted an audience of 7,000 children and adults.

“We decided at the beginning to do theater that would really be main stage quality, not just ‘Let’s pretend,’ ” Gould said. “We would have crafts people designing the sets and costumes as if children really were the most important people coming to see theater.”

“We want this to be a first-class experience for the adults and the kids,” said Charlene Gould, who serves as executive producer for the company. “And we’re seeing a great response. It’s not a drop-off, kiddie matinee kind of thing. The parents come with the kids to the shows. It’s a shared experience for the whole family.”

Past Theatrefaire seasons have included such grade-school favorites as “Pinocchio,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Snow White.” “Jack and the Beanstalk” continues in that vein, but as adapted and directed by Greg Atkins, it contains a few chuckles for mom and dad too.

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“I like children’s plays that work on many levels,” said Atkins, who also works with South Coast Repertory’s popular Young Conservatory program and directs and performs with a number of local theater groups.

“Besides, the original story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is awful. He goes up and steals for no reason then kills the giant. I didn’t want to propagate that idea, so I tried to write the story in a way that would be fun for everyone.”

“It’s about the I.R.S and big government taking things away from the little guy,” Atkins explained. “The businessman (who takes Jack’s family cow in exchange for a magic bean) is obviously big business foreclosing on the farmer, and the goose that lays the golden eggs is named Lottie, for Lotto, because we all want to win big.”

Even in the confines of the tiny theater, “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a visual treat. Mary Ann Griego’s costumes blend Appalachian corn-pone with fairy-tale splendor (for the giant’s magic harp, Griego outfitted Angela Kang in a fanciful, gold-toned kimono with a built-in, scaled-down harp). And Wally Huntoon’s setting features a complicated piece that serves first as the castle’s forbidding entry, then swings apart to reveal the giant’s kitchen, fully outfitted with a glowing, smoking stove. Lighting is by Bill Liotta and sound by Eric Kerns.

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Later this season, Irvine Valley Theatrefaire presents “Twin Desperadoes,” a Western-style adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” geared for all ages.

“This one is a real departure for us,” said Gould, who co-wrote the script with Atkins and Christopher Villa. “It’s completely original . . . with apologies to Wild Bill Shakespeare. We’ll have singing cowboys, lots of music, all the favorite B-movie Western stuff that many of us grew up with.” The show will run July 21 through 29 on an outdoor stage on the college campus.

Theatrefaire organizers have ambitious plans for the future. In the 1990-91 season, the group is scheduled to stage a lavish production of “The Hobbit” in the new Irvine Theatre, a 750-seat house under construction on the UC Irvine campus. The company hopes to present one or two productions there each year.

But whatever the venue, Gould says it’s the response of young audiences that keeps Theatrefaire artists committed.

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“I just tell everybody in the show that they will have the best audience of their entire lives,” Gould said.

“After every show, we have an autograph session with the cast,” he explained. “Kids are so honest, you wouldn’t believe the comments. After ‘Snow White,’ a little boy came up to the woman who played the queen and gave her this big hug. He said, ‘I need to give you a hug because I think nobody else likes you.’

“You can’t get that kind of feedback anywhere else.”

Irvine Valley Theatrefaire for Children presents “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Irvine Valley College Forum Theatre, 5500 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Performances are as follows: today, July 20 and 21, 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m.; and July 22, 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets: $6 for children under 14, $8 for adults. Group discounts are available. “Twin Desperadoes” runs July 21 through 29. For ticket information on both shows, call (714) 559-3333 weekdays only.

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