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FABLE-HOPPING : Some of ‘Aesop’s’ Animals Have More Than One Tale

<i> Corinne Flocken covers children's events for the Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Maybe you won’t find it in the medical journals, but it’s a widely known fact among parents that children are born with snooze buttons.

No matter how vital the message or eloquent the delivery, just a few words into a parental lecture, the kids’ mouths go slack, their chins droop and those little “siesta time” signs pop up in their eyeballs. The catnap continues as long as the parent talks or until somebody opens the refrigerator door, whichever comes first.

Aesop must have been wise to this, because in many of his fables he lets animals do the talking instead of people. They dispense lessons on perseverance (“The Tortoise and the Hare”), kindness (“The Lion and the Mouse”) and other virtues. And as old as the stories are, many of the values and vices they deal with are still relevant today.

Next week, the Minneapolis-based Children’s Theatre Company puts a new spin on these tales with “Animal Fables From Aesop,” a family-oriented adaptation enhanced by a variety of musical and dance styles and richly detailed costumes. Mid-way through its 1994-95 national tour, CTC’s “Animal Fables” will run Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Tickets are still available for Tuesday’s performance, but Wednesday’s show is sold out. (The company will also play a number of dates outside the county, including performances Feb. 10 and 11 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido.)

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Considered one of the top children’s theater companies in the United States, CTC last appeared at the Irvine theater in 1993 with an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” The group presented versions of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” and Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstockings” there in 1992 and 1991, respectively.

CTC produces a season of family-oriented shows in its home theater. It also operates an extensive theater training program for children and adults and has initiated exchange programs with the central Children’s Theatre of Moscow and the Children’s Art Theatre of Shanghai, China.

Bringing classic literature to the stage has been one of CTC’s focuses since it was established in 1965. According to the company’s press releases, the group has enlisted the help of such noted children’s authors and illustrators as Tomie de Paola, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Beverly Cleary. A version of Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby” will tour during the 1995-96 season; the Irvine theater is currently negotiating with CTC for performances in late January or early February, 1996.

“Animal Tales From Aesop” was inspired by Barbara McClintock’s book of the same name, winner of the 1992 American Library Assn.'s Notable Book Award.

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Selecting McClintock’s book over the other Aesop translations was a virtual no-brainer for CTC’s directors, said the show’s director and choreographer, Wendy Lehr.

“Aesop’s fables were part of an oral tradition, and some of the more antiquated translations of them are really turgid,” said Lehr, who has acted and directed off and on for CTC since the group’s inception. “That’s why Barbara’s version is such a treat.”

Using McClintock’s book as a springboard, Lehr and playwright Marisha Chamberlain selected stories they could link together in a cohesive way. Set in the late 19th Century, the play follows a troupe of English actors as they perform the fables at a village fair, where the main event is a race between a tortoise and a hare.

The 15 stories are presented sequentially, McClintock said, but characters from one fable periodically make guest appearances in another or act as bridges between stories.

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“You get to see each animal’s rising and failing fortunes,” explained Lehr. “For example, the fox starts out on top of the heap because he seduces the crow into dropping her cheese (in ‘The Fox and the Crow’). But later (in ‘The Fox and the Cat’), he loses his tail because he’s bragging. Then he tries to get the other animals to throw off their tails (in ‘The Fox Without a Tail’), but they say no, and he ends up in disgrace.”

The characters are anthropomorphic; the nine actors wear elegant Victorian garb and realistic-looking animal or bird heads that have been engineered to allow them to move freely. The characters do not speak, relying on body language, mime and an onstage narrator to tell the stories.

Roberta Carlson’s original songs help move the tales along. Both the music and the dances that accompany them integrate a variety of styles, said Lehr.

“Roberta has created a pastiche of music that pays homage to the 19th Century,” she explained. “You hear musical quotes (from) Gilbert and Sullivan, English music hall, even opera.”

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During rehearsals, Lehr and the cast developed choreography that would reflect each of the animal’s characteristics.

“One of the first things I did was to create a movement pattern for each character,” Lehr said, “the idea of a skulk for the wolf, a slink for the cat. . . .

“Later, we did a whole ballet class as their animals. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a tortoise do a pirouette . . . very slowly,” she added, laughing.

“Barbara’s book was really the inspiration for all this,” said Lehr. “You open it up and see all these fantastic pictures. At the end, you see the characters as actors who have taken off their masks, and you see that it’s all been a wonderful little entertainment.

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“That’s enough to make anyone in children’s theater sit up and notice.”

* What: The Children’s Theatre Company’s “Animal Fables From Aesop.”

* When: Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m. A second performance on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 10 a.m. is sold out.

* Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

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* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Jamboree Road and head south. Turn left on Campus Drive, and right into the parking structure.

* Wherewithal: Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under. Parking is $4.

* Where to call: Theater box office at (714) 854-4646 or Ticketmaster, (714) 740-2000.

MORE KID STUFF

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IN MISSION VIEJO: SUPER BOWL BOOKIES

Refugees from Sunday’s Big Game might check out Borders Books and Music (25222 El Paseo), where from noon to 3 p.m. activities will include a children’s story time and Dixieland jazz. Brunch refreshments (see Newsbites, page 25) will be sold. (714) 367-0005.

IN LONG BEACH: ‘PETER PAN’

This Musical Youth Artist Repertory Theatre (MYART) staging mingles professional actors with a large--make that huge--cast of kids from Orange and L.A. counties. Continues Friday through Sunday at Millikan High School, 2800 Snowden Ave. $8 to $10. (800) 400-2985.

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IN FULLERTON: ‘PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD!’

Are vegetables art? Your kids probably don’t think so, but this hands-on workshop at the Fullerton Museum Center (301 N. Pomona) will show 8- to 12-year-olds how they can use boring produce to create unique prints. Saturday, Jan. 28, at 1:30 p.m.; $5. (714) 738-6545.


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