Why should children go to the theater? Judging by the work typically presented in the United States, one can draw this primary answer: to allay fears—of adults. Unlike many other countries, where complex and challenging plays for kids thrive, the U.S. typically offers up cute, colorful, condescending entertainments, in which conflict is easily—even magically—resolved and an anodyne lesson is easily drawn. It’s as if the makers of these shows—and the parents and teachers who bring youngsters to them—need to assure themselves that childhood is an innocent time, unperturbed by the stresses and anxieties of an uncertain world.
Children know better, of course. Strike up a conversation with some six-year-olds—as I did before the start of two promising new musical plays for children this week—and they’ll weigh in with a marvelous mishmash of topics: who’s pulling whose hair, how scary it is to sit in the dark at the beginning of a play, that Daddy went away on Tuesday (Mommy says he’s coming back). Loud, high-energy, moralizing kiddie shows provide some escape and comfort—and blunt children’s critical imaginations.
This is a difficult tradition to buck, especially in an era when kids are bombarded with TV razzle-dazzle that so expertly trains them to be passive spectators and ravenous consumers of product tie-ins. But here and there, “emancipatory theater for children”—to borrow a phrase from the scholar Jack Zipes—is gaining a foothold in the U.S. The most successful and inspiring case is the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis, under the direction of Peter Brosius. Since assuming the post in 1997, Brosius has presented new plays about such subjects as the friendship between two girls of different economic classes, the orphanage run by Januscz Korczak in the Warsaw ghetto, the clash between African Americans and Somali immigrants in Minnesota.
Little surprise that the Talking Band’s charming new show, The Parrot, was commissioned by Brosius. Currently running at the Flea Theater as the centerpiece of its five-week kids’ festival, “Give Us Your Children!,” The Parrot combines the quirky, low-tech appeal of the Talking Band’s downtown aesthetic with an appreciation for the contradictions and pressures faced by an adolescent girl.
The story, written by Paul Zimet freely adapting an Italian folktale, focuses on one evening in young Bela’s life when she is left home alone. While she works on her homework—and juggles simultaneous conversations with several friends on her cell phone—she notices a flock of parrots in a tree outside the window: a chorus of three actors in huge-beaked, floppy-fabric masks, singing a fugue-like commentary on the action and echoing the sounds of the city. (“Taxi! Taxi!” they caw in Ellen Maddow’s appealing melodies.) One—taking the form of a rod puppet—flies into her window and begins to tell her a fanciful story. A creepy (overly caricatured) suitor knocks at the door, but Bela refuses to answer until the tale is finished, so the parrot keeps talking, telling stories within stories. Bela becomes a player in each of these fables, acted out right in her apartment: Ladies-in-waiting emerge singing from the refrigerator, and a pining prince sacks out on her sofa. As reward for her acts of derring-do, Bela is offered marriage to the prince. She refuses again and again, still eager to discover herself.
Best of all, the transformations of character and setting occur at every level of the show’s design: The ladies-in-waiting wear headdresses made of yogurt containers; the chorus shakes maracas made of Tupperware with beans inside, or rhythmically rattles plastic bags. Though The Parrot has modest ambitions, its primary hero is the imagination.
The Upside Down Boy, presented by Making Books Sing, leaves less room for children’s whimsy. Vibrant and engaging, it has slicker production values and a six-piece band playing tuneful songs in a variety of Latin forms by Cristian Amigo. It’s based on the storybook by Juan Felipe Herrera (who wrote the lyrics for this adaptation). The title character is Juanito, a 10-year-old who feels displaced when his family moves from the campo to Queens. He misses the flowers and the quiet and is shamed and silenced at school because of his poor English. The show effectively captures his anguish and confusion—in a nightmarish scene, he’s shoved around the halls as he searches for his classroom amid a stream of hurrying students—but rushes to an unconvincing happy ending as Juanito realizes that the boy relentlessly bullying him also feels “upside down.” He wins him over as a friend, and all the kids learn, as the closing song puts it, that “we are many voices with many beautiful songs.”
The bully’s sass drew laughter from most of the 450 kids bused into the Queens Theatre in the Park, where the show was playing last week. But Mohamed, the small-for-his-age boy sitting next to me, promptly shoved his thumb in his mouth every time this character appeared. Mohamed, for one, knows that staving off bullies is not so easy.