You've heard of the Pasta brothers, Rigatoni and Vermicelli? Wait until you catch their run-in with the Countess Provolone.
Sound a little cheesy? Maybe so, but the latest production of Actors for Children, "Professor Zucchini's Traveling Tales," is more fun than a pineapple pizza.
The show begins its two-month tour of Ventura County schools, libraries and recreation centers April 5. The professor and his entourage have 27 performances scheduled.
Getting the show on the road is the job of Naomi Monroe, who created Actors for Children in 1984. So far, her troupe of professional actors and actresses has traveled the county with 16 productions.
The troupe travels light. Monroe's cast of six uses only a trunk, ladder and stool for props in the production.
"The children aren't blown away by glitz and glitter," Monroe said. "They use their imaginations."
In "Professor Zucchini's Traveling Tales," two skits are based on Italian folk tales. "The Pasta Brothers" is about the financially destitute Rigatoni and Vermicelli who compete for riches in a contest run by the countess. Rigatoni manages to outwit her by controlling his temper.
The second, "The Proud Prince," is a lesson in humility. The prince is obsessed with riddles and his own cleverness. (What is more useful after it breaks? An egg.) He meets his match in the equally clever Camellia.
The kids get into the performance, Monroe said. They'll warn the actors if danger is near.
"Look behind the tree! Can't you see him? He's right there!" was one child's frantic warning, Monroe said.
After each show, the cast returns to the stage to answer questions, which can get personal sometimes. Children have asked cast members if they are married, if they've been on television and why they act so silly.
For Monroe, children's theater evolved from a long career that began in New York when she was a youngster.
"I have always been a theater addict," she said. "Two or three times a month I would go to the theater." At New York University she studied English and communications, with an emphasis on film and television. She also studied acting and worked in theater groups as an actress and business manager.
They were heady times. "It was 1958 to 1961, during the blooming of off-Broadway and experimental theater," she said.
After marriage and a move to New Jersey, she formed a theater company in Hightstown and put on shows for children, something of a novelty at the time.
"Our first one was 'Pinocchio and the Fire-Eater,' " she recalled. "We got a room at an elementary school, opened the doors, and it was wall-to-wall audience. It was very exciting."
In 1973, she came to California with her husband, a film cameraman, and eventually they settled in Thousand Oaks. She joined the Arts Council of the Conejo Valley, worked as a casting director and continued to act in local productions.
"I saw there was tremendous lack of theater here and practically nothing for children," she said. She formed Actors for Children "with absolutely not a penny."
Now she does well enough to pay her actors, whom she recruits from the Los Angeles area through advertisements in theater publications. For the current production, she received 75 resumes from professionals. She auditioned 14 for the six roles.
The cast includes Melanie Maynard of Thousand Oaks, a veteran of five Actors for Children productions; Robert Cornell, another veteran who appeared in "The Foreigner" and "Bleacher Bums" in Los Angeles; Gary Holland, a performer since the age of 6; Carolyn Warco, who appeared in "Cinderella" at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center; Brooke Jonassen, a Thousand Oaks native who studied at Studio 90 and appeared in videos, and Kim Larsen, who has appeared on "General Hospital."
Actors for Children tours with two productions a year. Each tour is two months long. "We reach 7,000 kids with each tour," Monroe said.
* WHERE AND WHEN
In addition to school performances throughout the county, Actors for Children has scheduled public shows of "Professor Zucchini's Traveling Tales" at Moorpark Community Center, April 5, 3 p.m.; Pleasant Valley Recreation District in Camarillo, April 13, 2 p.m.; Brookside Elementary School in Oak Park, April 25, 7 p.m.; Simi Valley Library, April 28, 3 p.m.; Borchard Community Center in Newbury Park, May 4, 2 p.m.; Mission Park in Ventura, May 11, 2:30 p.m.; Newbury Park Branch Library, May 22, 4 p.m.; Thousand Oaks Library, May 22, 7 p.m.; and Conejo Community Center in Thousand Oaks, June 2, 2 p.m. Tickets range from $2 to $3. Call 499-3791 for information.