It’s always satisfying to discover something you weren’t very aware of beforehand. Last weekend, my kids and I had a great time at The Legend of Pufferfish Pat, the latest offering from InterAct Story Theatre.
I was surprised to see in the program that the company was founded way back in 1981. Part of that surprise is because everyone involved seemed to be young enough that, back then, they would not have been creating the work, but, rather, experiencing it from the audience, if they were even alive yet.
The company is itinerant, with the current show performing at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring.
My twins and I, among the first to arrive for the show, began the experience with an activity. There are a few offered; Aksel and Ivona opted to decorate kerchiefs to wear during the show. This began to ease them into the Old West setting.
Once in the theater, set pieces supported that milieu. “Look, Daddy: a pretend cactus. And the blankets are the dirt.” A score featuring music by Aaron Copland and from classic Western films also contributed to the atmosphere.
Staff with pads of paper circulated and asked audience members (the younger ones only) what makes them mad. Ivona answered that Aksel makes her mad by keeping her up when she wants to sleep.
The staff followed up by asking Ivona what she does to cope with her anger. “I play with him for a little bit and that makes him happy.”
This introduces us to the main theme of the play. You see, our title character, Pufferfish Pat, received his unwanted moniker because his temper was notoriously impossible for him to control.
As the play proper began, the trio of performers came out and addressed the audience, introducing themselves and instructing us about how to participate in the creation of some sound effects during the show.
The most impressive aspect to the piece is the clever manner in which various themes are subtlety reenforced. As an example, early on, there is a play-within-a-play sequence that reminds us of the cue for fading out those participatory sound effects. (As an example of that, we slapped our knees to represent galloping horses.)
Also impressive is the manner in which a secondary theme regarding gender plays out. During the intro, we’ve been told that the actors will play multiple roles, not all of which will conform to their ostensible gender.
Almost immediately, we are introduced to a pair of German dudes, both played by the women in the cast, and the promise of actor transformation is kept. We do a double-take — are they the two who greeted us at the top of the show?
Without preaching or knocking a brick wall onto the audience, the script also makes a point of encouraging us to embrace choices outside of traditional gender expectations. For example, the mayor of the town in which the action takes place is a woman played by a man. Maybe it’s not particularly historically accurate that a mayor in the Old West would be a woman (though Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and others played powerful women in Western films), but why not? And what’s wrong with a boy playing her?
Another theme is the importance of imagination as a socializing tool. When Pat duels with his nemesis One-Eyed Jack, the referee yells, “Draw!” and (spoiler alert) the combatants pull out chalk and begin to draw on walls.
The Legend of Pufferfish Pat: A Tall Tale for Mad Times
closes September 23, 2017
Details and tickets
I very much appreciated the moments that director Ali Oliver-Krueger (who also wrote the script and is the company’s Artistic Director) found that were quiet and realistic. At the other end of the spectrum, theatre for the young can feel pushed and rushed, without any nuance. It’s great that not every moment in this show is performed at a galloping pace.
That said, the piece has a lot of exposition and a somewhat involved plot that may be, despite a running time of a bit less than an hour, a bit much for kids younger than mine, who are five, and are experienced theatre-goers. (We took in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 over the summer.)
Like the best theatre for new audiences, there are things that are sophisticated enough to keep older audiences engaged. An adult near me, unaccompanied by child, was yucking it up, and I was amused at aspects such as a subtle nod to the double casting that may have gone over tinier heads.
There were a few small things that didn’t work as well as other things did. A couple times, it was difficult to hear an actor’s voice over the music (and we were in the first row). It wasn’t easy to make out the drawings since the walls on which the drawing happened were of stained wood. I also expected more audience interaction during the show, given the statement in the program that the audience are “the most important actors.”
The three actors are all terrific and have impressive voices as well as acting skills. Though I admired all three, I felt that Elle Marie Sullivan had the most opportunity to make vivid distinctions between disparate characters, and she made the most of it, aided by a particularly convincing wig.
Alex Miletich IV jumps eagerly into roles that include the aforementioned lady mayor. Kelsey Yudice plays the title role. Though she’s not particularly fierce, that may have been a choice. The kids can identify with her without being frightened, while Yudice’s being off-type for the role brought to my mind the sort of childhood role-playing kids engage in with friends — just the context during which they may encounter the feelings of sudden anger that are the play’s major concern.
Rachel Frederick and Andrea Schewe designed the costumes, and the actors, along with stage manager Erica Feidelseit and her crew (presuming she has a run crew other than the actors themselves), executed complex costume changes without betraying any effort and without seeming rushed.
The other really impressive design element was the props. I loved the newspaper and was straining to see its careful and convincing detail. (No props designer is listed in the program, so I presume credit for this goes to Set Designer Peter Oliver-Krueger — the set is also wildly inventive — or to the director.)
The rest of the season published in the program appears to be one-off performances. As opposed to other theatre for young audiences, Ms. Oliver-Krueger told us during a curtain speech, the traditional run is only one aspect to the company’s work, which occurs “not just in theaters.”
There’s only two more weekends of this run, so be sure to check it out, if you’re looking for something fun and different to do with children.
The Legend of Pufferfish Pat: A Tall Tale for Mad Times by Ali Oliver-Krueger. Directed by Ali Oliver-Krueger. Featuring Alex Miletich IV, Kelsey Yudice, Elle Marie Sullivan. Dramaturg/Assistant Director: Emily Townsend. Technical Director/Set Design: Peter Oliver-Krueger. Costume Design: Rachel Frederick, Andrea Schewe. Lighting Design: Chris Campanella. Stage Manager: Erica Feidelseit. Produced by InterAct Story Theatre. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.