WHO SAYS DRAGONS have to breathe fire? The title character in "The Reluctant Dragon," the one-man show that Bob Brown of Bob Brown Puppets performs this week at Wolf Trap, would rather write poetry. That suits the puppeteer just fine.

"His dragons are goofy rather than scary," says company manager Judy Brown, a claim that is borne out by the marionette's crossed eyes and hapless grin. The tale, part of the troupe's Storybook Series, was adapted from the children's story of the same name, a lesser-known work by "Wind in the Willows" author Kenneth Grahame.

In choosing material, Bob Brown looks for stories in which children outwit adults -- a requirement that "The Reluctant Dragon" meets thanks to Young Robert, a village boy who helps reconcile the misunderstood dragon and a dragon-slayer with a reputation to consider.

"It's empowering for the little ones," Judy Brown says. The tale also meets another important requirement for one-man shows: It doesn't have too many people (or dragons) in it. "Bob can't have too many characters because he's talking to himself," says Judy Brown.

The 40-year-old troupe knows its way around Wolf Trap. "We've performed there every year since it opened," Judy Brown says. In addition to appearing locally, Bob Brown Puppets does children's programming with symphony orchestras all over the country -- and the world. Its production of "The Reluctant Dragon" is one of two shows on the fourth program in Wolf Trap's Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods series, which continues through early August.

The story unfolds against the backdrop of a six-foot-high storybook whose pages serve as the production's sets. "We push reading all the time," Judy Brown says. The puppeteers say kids will sit still for a half-hour, tops, a state of affairs they blame on television and video games. Happily, the outdoor venue, in a grove near the Filene Center, gives fidgety kids room to roam without disrupting the performances. And there's always the chance that keeping a book center stage will have a subliminal effect. "The set reinforces the idea of storybooks and reading," Judy Brown says. "It's very effective."

PUPPETS AND MORE

Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods performances are at 10 and 11:15 Tuesdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $5 for one show, $8 for both; children 2 and younger free. Tickets may be purchased online at www.wolftrap.org, by calling 703-218-6500, or at the Filene Center Box Office. (Advance purchase recommended.)

National Park Service rangers lead nature walks after most Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods performances; reservations are not required. Additionally, performers at the 10 a.m. shows lead interactive arts workshops on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:15 in the Meadow Pavilion. Participants must be 5 or older and accompanied by an adult. For reservations, call 703-255-1824.

Upcoming performances:

Tuesday-July 17: Bob Brown Puppets, "The Reluctant Dragon" at 10; Nada Brahma, "The World of Music" at 11:15.

July 20-24: Tappers With Attitude, "Knock on Wood -- A Celebration of Tap" at 10; Imagination Stage, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" at 11:15.

July 27-31: Diane Macklin, "Magnificent Folks, Animals, and Other Such Tales" at 10; Dance Institute of Washington, "Petrouchka" at 11:15.

Aug. 3-7: Maryland Youth Ballet, "Caroline Goes to the Ballet" at 10; Mark Jaster, "Piccolo's Trunk" at 11:15.

"The Reluctant Dragon," a one-man show performed by Bob Brown of Bob Brown Puppets, stars Marmaduke the dragon.