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Fantasy, Reality Meld in ‘Peter and the Wolf’ : Performance: Mermaid Theatre uses masks, puppets and actors as it transforms an orchestral piece into a theatrical work. The troupe performs Sunday in Costa Mesa.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A stainless-steel wolf, clowns, masks, an onstage synthesizer . . . the Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia offers the unexpected in a whimsical stage adaptation of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

It performs for family audiences today at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena and Sunday at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa before traveling to Hawaii.

“It’s dark and fun and scary--a very full 45 minutes,” said Artistic Director Graham Whitehead in a telephone interview from the Kennedy Center in Washington.

“It’s built with puppets and masks and live actors, and the music is played live on a synthesizer, so all the Prokofiev is there, even if it’s not always immediately recognizable.

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“I tried to make it into a theatrical piece, not simply an orchestral, narrated piece,” he said.

The show begins with bumbling clowns who can’t perform the familiar story because they’ve forgotten their musical instruments. A musician comes to the rescue with a synthesizer, working out musical sounds for each character.

In that way, Whitehead explained, the audience is still given “an introduction to the orchestral elements, even though it then becomes a theatrical piece.”

Whitehead, who stressed that “one has to respect the classics,” even in contemporized adaptations, set out to do a North American version, one that was “logically modern.” When Grandfather enters, “the first thing you hear is a chain saw from off stage, because he’s a woodsman,” Whitehead said.

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“Certainly, in Nova Scotia everyone knows exactly where they are when they hear that sound, and they’re very comfortable with it. Being rooted in reality,” he noted, “allows you to make the jump to fantasy in your imagination.”

The highly respected 19-year-old Mermaid Theatre is known for its unique, stylized masks and puppets. Its adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” which toured in 1989, was a triumph of organic design. Here, those elements again play a large part.

“The puppets you could say are folk-art pieces,” Whitehead said. “The manipulators of the pieces are wearing masks, and the masks correspond as closely as possible to the puppet they’re manipulating.

“When a puppet is unable to do a maneuver, then the puppeteer becomes the spirit of the animal and carries out the maneuver.

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For example, “when the cat tries to climb a tree and can’t because he’s too fat, he talks to his manipulator--who climbs the tree for him.

“It’s a lovely transition,” Whitehead said, “quite seamless.”

The cast is made up of adults, but the audience shouldn’t have trouble believing that Peter is a child. “Everybody is masked except Peter,” Whitehead said. “Grampy is this large mask, so although Peter is played by an adult, he looks small next to Grampy.” In preparation “we carefully observed kids at play, so there’s this level of reality melded into fantasy.”

The dialogue contains what Whitehead calls “adultisms” that parents will recognize. One exchange was inspired by his daughter, Sarah, when she was a toddler.

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In the play, when Peter has trapped the wolf, saying “I caught him with my rope,” his grandfather asks: “What if the rope had broken?” “But it didn’t,” Peter responds, secure in his triumph; “what ifs” are meaningless to him.

“I based that on an incident with my daughter when she was very little,” Whitehead said. “She wasn’t allowed to go upstairs by herself, but one day I forgot to put the gate up, and there she was at the top of stairs, swaying back and forth. I said, ‘Sarah, you could have fallen and hurt yourself.’

“ ‘But I didn’t,’ she said.”

The psychology of the piece is part of the physical staging as well, according to Whitehead. “Grampy’s house is a small, safe, closed place,” he said. “But the temptation of the woods, being larger and freer,” represents “the call all children have to respond to sooner or later, and of course it’s ignorance that allows them to do that.”

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“Peter and the Wolf” has been part of the Mermaid Theatre’s repertoire since the mid-'80s. Whitehead attributes its success to its all-ages appeal. “I think all great literature appeals to adults on one level, to children on another and to both on many levels together. I think this work’s success is based on that.”

Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia’s production of “Peter and the Wolf” plays today at 2 p.m. at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena. Information: (818) 356-4652. Also Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $6.50 adults in advance, $4.50 children under 12. At the door: $8, adults; $6, children under 12. Information: (714) 432-5880.


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