How many times have you heard or seen something touted as "fun for the whole family?" How often has this phrase actually held true? In our increasingly absurd and ultraspecialized world, such communal entertainment is difficult to find.

The Japanese Theater Troupe known as Kaze-No-Ko (Children of the Wind) is a blissful exception. Ask any grandparent, young adult, fifth-grader or toddler who attended the group's performance last night in Baird Auditorium to tell you what they experienced, and you're bound to get a similar, resoundingly affirmative response.

What, you might wonder, makes Kaze-No-Ko so special? Here they come up the aisle, three women and two men, singing a buoyant Japanese song of greeting. They are wearing simple shirts and trousers, and carry an assortment of battered suitcases. One of them strums a guitar. Their act is simplicity itself: hand games, tricks with rope and fabric and newspaper, retelling of classic stories like "The Ugly Duckling." Their props consist of pots and pans, plastic funnels, empty cans and bottles. Their command of English is charmingly basic, and their dialogue devoid of references to Michael Jackson, Cabbage Patch Kids, presidential elections or other trendy items. They'd rather concern themselves with animals, flowers, music-making trains, mountains and sunshine.

So why does everyone laugh and applaud at each little prank, and murmur their appreciation througout? Like Marcel Marceau's Bip or a beloved folk song, these five souls touch us in tender and universal ways. Their consummate technical skills -- in mime, music, dramatics, origami (the art of paper-folding) -- are at once apparent but never presented ostentatiously. Rather, these gifts free the performers, allowing them to appear totally spontaneous and uninhibited. Imagination serves as their starting point.

Their agile figures and hands conjure up scurrying crabs, treacherous waves or a chorus of crooning ducks. Two baskets combined with a plastic bag become a witch; a hanger and soup ladle turn into a bird. A collection of bottles, played expertly, produces ethereal harmonies. A rope is manipulated gracefully to form a sailboat, house or butterfly. And what magical creations flow out of a simple piece of paper: geese, swans, baseball bats, a peacock, snowflakes, teardrops and much more. Who needs television or Barbie dolls if Kaze-No-Ko is near?

If only our daily reality could reflect a mere fraction of all the love, humor, creativity and sincerity that this troupe brings to the stage. -- Pamela Sommers Kaze-No-Ko

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