"Help! It's a Dragon" opens the seventh annual series of free children's programs in Kennedy Center's Theater Lab. Although first attracted to the show by its title, program director Carole Huggins was surprised to find that "it wasn't about a silly dragon, but something much more substantial."

New York's Theater in a Trunk tackles a touchy topic: toothless dragons -- fearsome doubts and insecurities that plague us all. "We try to deal with issues that everyone is concerned with and will bring families closer together," explains founder and artistic director Sonia Gluckman. "If what's on stage is part of your life, then this can continue as a frame of reference. You have found a common language."

Surely everyone can understand a fierce and selfish dragon that taunts schoolchildren -- played by a professional cast of four adults dressed in dragon-green pants and brightly colored tank tops -- to flee rather than face their own fears, real and imagined. The real danger for children, as Gluckman of the river, sees it, is an early-learned defensive response that turns into abrasive adult behavior.

One way to get this message across, Gluckman believes, is to "reach children through sound and movement because they are constantly being talked at. If I lose them it's my fault. If they start yawning or coughing, there's a hole in the show."

If there's a hole in "Dragon" it's hard to find. The simple set -- four brightly colored blocks and a wall over which the puppet dragon fumes -- was designed to give only the hint of a location and keep our eyes on the action. For 50 minutes the show swiftly presents scenes and songs of emotional conflict at home, in school and on the playground.

To signal inner conflicts, the sound of a heartbeat starts up and the lights change. Children may not understand the stage effects, but they feel them: "The feelings are being communicated on a different level. You feel it here -- in your solar plexus," says Gluckman, giving a soft punch to her stomach.

Theater in a Trunk, which hopes to land a permanent home as City Center's children's theater in residence, will perform weekdays for school groups and for the public on a first-come, first-served basis, Saturdays through October 23 at 10:30 and 12:30.

CHILDREN'S REP

All performances are free in the Theater Lab, Roof Terrace Level of the Kennedy Center. The series continues on a vaudeville theme with "Yankee Doodle Dandy," presented by the Producers Foundation Ltd. of New York (October 27-30); "Backstage Baby," by Birmingham's Children's Theater (November 3-6); the jazz tap group "No Maps on My Taps" (November 10-13) and the third annual holiday show (December 7-18).