One of the unexpected joys of parenting, for me, has been experiencing those moments when you see your child interact with the world in a new or more engaged way and you feel a sudden wave of emotion. I had that experience more than once during Wake Up, Brother Bear, the piece that just opened at Imagination Stage as part of its Early Childhood program, called My First Imagination Stage.
This wasn’t the first trip to Imagination Stage for my twins (who turned 2 in July). But, as much theatre as they’ve already taken in, it never gets old, watching their faces register a mixture of awe and delight as they watch, and interact with, a live performance.
Wake Up, Brother Bear began Imagination Stage’s Early Childhood program with its world premiere in 2010 and is here revived with much, though not all, of its original team intact. Suggested for audiences aged 1-5, lap tickets are available for even younger theatre-goers, and I saw at least one audience member who was still measuring age in months and not years.
Outside the Christopher and Dana Reeve Studio Theatre, as we line up to enter, we see a tree. As we pass it on our way in, we see that it is covered with snow on one side. As we enter, we sit around a large cloth circle that has clothes strewn over it. Four tree trunks (or totem poles?) with faces painted on them are also on the perimeter of the circle.
As the title might lead you to expect, the eponymous fraternal bear is still in a state of slumber, so we are greeted by his sister, who is handing out little bags filled with the objects that the kids will use for the interactive portions of the show. A cellist, seated outside the perimeter, provides musical underscoring, as she will throughout the performance.
“Welcome to the woods,” Sister Bear says as the play begins. She then encourages the kids to identify “their spot” (on the outer-most part of the circle) to which they will return after any (solicited!) forays into the playing area; and she encourages the older folks to feel free to come in and out of the space throughout the show as needed — you won’t be disruptive if a child has taken a break but is then ready to come back inside.
Brother Bear wakes up and joins his sister in a series of vignettes that involve different seasons — and also different moods and experiences that will be familiar to the young theatre-goers. Brother feels frustration when he isn’t able to get something he wants; Sister tries to re-engage him. The two share moments of sibling competition, and also of discovery. It wasn’t clear to me what, if any, difference there is in age between the two, but there is an articulation differential: the sister speaks easily, while the brother doesn’t use words to express himself.
WAKE UP, BROTHER BEAR!
Closes November 30, 2014
4908 Auburn Avenue
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Though the piece isn’t heavy on a narrative through-line, it beautifully integrates all of the other elements of theatre — sound, light, color, objects. The staging is clever and fluid, as when the actors, after manipulating miniature ice-skating figures, morph the scene into an in-scale dance. It’s the first of the couple or three of the Early Childhood shows we’ve seen that featured a shadow play (the firefly sequence), and that was a highlight.
The audience at Sunday morning’s 10 a.m. show was remarkably attentive. A shift from a bright stage to a dark one, during the story about the firefly (the actor playing brother gave voice to the firefly during the shadow play sequence), didn’t seem to upset anyone. The older children, unsurprisingly, are the most vocal — for instance, telling sister where to look for brother at the beginning of the play — but younger kids, such as mine, were eager to engage in the frequent interactive sequences.
Of course, the creators have chosen things that (in my experience, anyway!) are really big draws for the two-plus set. The autumn sequence involves fallen leaves — you can’t get much more fun than that. A search by Brother Bear for an illusive fish involves the holding and shaking of a parachute-like cloth that has become a lake or river — another sure-fire attraction for my kids.
The two actors (both of whom I know, to different degrees) are Jacob Yeh as Brother (he was in the original run) and Nora Achrati as Sister (new to this version), working under the direction of Nick Vargas, and the three deserve great credit for achieving a smart and subtle balance that engages the young audience and their older companions at the same time. Many of the stage images are gorgeous. Achrati has the more difficult task of the two actors, as she has the bulk of the text — or is it Yeh, who has (for the most part) to do his work without language, who has the tougher role? Both, working with director Vargas, create a welcoming, safe, engaging space that pulls the kids in, whether as viewers or as participants.
Special mention must be made of our cellist Katie Chambers. Whether cuing actors who otherwise can’t see when to move; whether adding sound effects; whether playing songs for children (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”), or classical themes (“The Blue Danube”, Brahms’ “Lullaby”), or quoting contemporary music (“Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III), she provides wonderful texture to the show. And it is delightful to see something geared at a young audience that goes in a different direction from a sound-scape that is either hyper-contemporary or full of the kind of kiddie bells-and-whistles that can drive older people crazy. The music is an element that is sophisticated, doesn’t talk down to its audience, and contributes mightily to an overall impressive design scheme.
Adults, by the way, (or, as we were referred to by Sister Bear, the big people who accompany the young people) fit comfortably into the experience. The beautiful images will impress and engage them as well as the target audience. Although the bulk of the audience sits on the floor, there are benches and even several rows of traditional theatre seats available for anybody who doesn’t “do” floor seating. I wasn’t surprised to hear older audience laughing appreciatively at some of the reactions from our younger compatriots. Less expected was hearing the older audience also genuinely laughing along with the younger ones in response to the work of the actors.
It lasts about 45 minutes, long enough for the experience to feel fulfilling, but not so long that the kids begin to get restless. Wake Up, Brother Bear runs until November 30th. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. And, with ticket prices at $12 (a $5 lap seat is available for children under 12 months), it makes an affordable option for parents looking for that something different, change-of-pace to another day at the playground or for kids whose imaginations are anxious to engage with something outside the house, something new, something aesthetically involving. (It’s also a great idea of something to do with the young people in your life if you are a relative or god-parent or engaged friend of the family.)
Toward the end of the play, the kids are invited to give the blankets they’ve been given to Brother Bear as he goes back to sleep. The first one out there was my son Aksel. That was one of those emotionally potent moments for me that I mentioned at the beginning. After the show, walking through the lobby, my daughter Ivona turned to me and said, “This is fun!”
What critic would argue with that review?
Wake Up, Brother Bear (video from original production, 2010)
WAKE UP, BROTHER BEAR!
Closes Nov 30
Anne Vandercook . DCMetroTheaterArts Imagination stage does a beautiful job of blending sound, light and interactive play