An occasional review of children’s theater options around Washington. (Shows are appropriate for age 4 and older unless noted.)
Swimming pools aren’t the only places where kids can immerse themselves this summer. A couple of theater pieces are offering a different kind of “immersive” fun.
At Adventure Theatre MTC, the experience actually does involve water. For its production of Jumanji, a mist periodically drizzles over the audience, along with bubbles and cardboard bits doubling as snow or lava. Oversize puppets, also made of cardboard, loom near the seats, and projections and lighting effects seem just as close.
Adventure Theatre Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt, who adapted the classic 1981 picture book by Chris Van Allsburg with Sandra Eskin, said he used his technical “toys” to make the show a “4-D” experience. “I’ve gotten into this idea of immersive theater and how much more visceral it can be,” he says. Thus came the rain, the bubbles, the snow, the lava.
But first, he and Eskin had to fill in the story. In the book, a brother and sister discover a magical board game that transports jungle animals into their home. Even with Van Allsburg’s drawings, it’s a little book.
Bobbitt credits Eskin with coming up with the idea to turn the placid children in the book into bickering siblings. “You have to have theater, you have to have drama,” he says. “Playing the game, they learn to get along, which is of course what you want from almost every children’s play.”
When Peter (Ryan Carlo) and his big sister, Judy (Billie Krishawn), start to play Jumanji, a huge snake puppet twists and glides into their living room. (Kids who know the book will see that the order of animals is different; in the book, the lion comes first.) The puppets — monkeys, lion, birds and more — were designed by Andrea “Dre” Moore and are visibly operated by actors.
Elan Zafir, who plays the hopelessly incompetent jungle guide, says kids “just go ape over some of the things that happen.” His role, quite small in the book, becomes key here, helping to tone down the scary and amp up the humorous. “I wanted to make sure the show was really funny and surprising, but not scary,” Bobbitt says.
So the guide may look like a steely eyed Indiana Jones-type hero at first, but he turns out to be comically inept — a poser.
“He’s seen too many movies. He’s read too many books,” Zafir says. “He’s kind of vain . . . he thinks he’s this dashing, romantic, swashbuckling adventurer . . . but he’s flawed.” The guide’s ineptitude, Bobbitt says, forces Judy and Peter to figure out how to solve the problem on their own.
Seeking ways to make his character non-threatening and funny, Zafir says he improvised a lot in rehearsals and even preview performances. In live theater, he says, the relationship between actors and children is like a secret pact.
“You’re making big gestures and it’s 100-percent truthful, but you’re in on the joke, too. It’s not like you’re winking your eye at them — you’re not winking. But the fact that you could wink at any second is right there. And the kids see that and they love that.”
“Jumanji” through Aug. 28 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. 301-634-2270. adventuretheatre-mtc.org . $19.50.
It isn’t rain or snow effects that make the two Gilbert & Sullivan shows at Olney Theatre Center so immersive. It’s the “promenade” staging, in which theatergoers can choose to sit among the cartoonishly clad young actors as they sing, play instruments and speak their lines. They’ll just point or nudge you out of the way if they need to sing a solo right where you’re sitting. (There’s other seating for those who prefer a bit of distance over full immersion.)
This isn’t the first time experimental Chicago-based company the Hypocrites has toured its playful, 80-minute reimaginings of “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance.” (“H.M.S. Pinafore” is in their tool kit, too.) And Artistic Director Sean Graney says they’re designed for the whole family to enjoy, including the younger ones.
That wasn’t quite his original plan. When the company first staged its pajama-party-inspired “Pirates” in 2010 over the holidays, it was advertised as a show that was in no way about Christmas. Graney says that to his surprise, “families were coming and we were really pleased by that. . . . People were ranging from the age of 4 to about 74.”
So when they reprised the show the next year, Graney says, “we were just a little more conscious of the fact that children would be coming. We started adding activities for children to do.” The Hypocrites followed up in 2012 with their circus-themed “Mikado,” set free from the original’s pseudo-Japanese setting and racial stereotyping.
In “Pirates,” children get to bat around beach balls and inflatable sharks and jump into a beach ball pit. “It sounds like it could get unruly, but it really doesn’t,” says Graney. “Before the show there’s a lot of ball throwing, but once the show starts, there’s a limited amount of controlled beach ball [throwing].” And even during the performance, he adds, “kids that are bored with the action can just go and play in the beach ball pit.”
In “The Mikado,” the diversion of choice is balloons, so parents should note that there will probably be some balloons a-poppin’.
“The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado ” through Aug. 21 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org . $15-$70.
Imagination Stage’s ballet-inspired musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid continues through mid-August, with music by Matthew Pierce, script and lyrics by the theater company’s Janet Stanford, and choreography by Septime Webre and David Palmer, the same team that worked on the company’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Through Aug. 14 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. imaginationstage.org . $15-$35.
Kids seeking more dramatic flair can savor the romance and gothic mystery in the redesigned production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which has steamed into the Kennedy Center for a month-plus run. It stars Chris Mann as the Phantom, Julia Udine as his obsession, Christine, and Storm Lineberger as the hero, Raoul. Through Aug. 20 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org . $25-$149. (Recommended for age 6 and older; includes gunshots and pyrotechnics.)
More puppetry prevails in Glen Echo Park, with the Puppet Co.’s Peter and the Wolf set to Prokofiev’s score. An introduction to orchestral instruments precedes the show. Through Aug. 28 at the Puppet Co., 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-5380. thepuppetco.org. $12.
Children ages 2 to 8 are the target audience for Midsummer Magic, a puppet theater rendition of the fairy story from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by the new troupe Shakespeare for the Young. There’s also a puppet workshop after each show. Aug. 6 and 13 at 10:30 a.m. at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. 202-290-2328. anacostiaplayhouse.com. $5.