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'Giant' fun for kids with strings attached

By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
February 8, 2008

Half the fun at any performance of children's theater is keeping track of the kids' reactions. What makes them giggle? What keeps them enchanted? What triggers bouts of boredom or crankiness?

The other half of the fun is reveling in the subversive material that can lurk just below the surface of a show -- the stuff that keeps the "accompanying adults" in the audience laughing, listening and in high spirits. And there is plenty of precisely that kind of thing in the Chicago Children's Theatre production of "The Selfish Giant," now running in the intimate Levin Gallery of the Field Museum.

The hourlong show feeds on the considerable talents of Oscar Wilde (whose story is its inspiration); Michael Smith, the uniquely droll songwriter and hip balladeer behind the recent Victory Gardens hit "The Snow Queen," and Smith's partner on that show, master puppeteer Blair Thomas, who could be mistaken for a latter-day Hans Christian Andersen.

The story told is simple but subtle: A big, anti-social man with a grand house and garden declares his garden a no-kids zone. In doing so, he not only isolates himself and leaves the children who love the place without a refuge, but he also disrupts the whole ecological balance. So it isn't long before the birds and the bees and the flowers and the seasons all find themselves unable to pursue their natural habits, and mean old Father Winter reigns over a cold, unchanging environment. Of course rebirth is the ultimate prize.

With a low platform stage that feels as handcrafted as the show itself, and seating that mixes loosely placed rows of chairs with a carpeted floor good for wigglers, the sense of audience-performer connection is immediate. And with their ideally counterpointed personalities, Smith and Thomas artfully spin the story with a slew of songs and puppets.

Smith contributes his guitar, his gravelly voice, his Grinch-like bearing and his delightfully clever lyrics that are chock full of rhymes, ingenious geographical references and edgy wit. Interestingly, his acerbic, slightly withdrawn performance style proves alluring to even the youngest kids, while simultaneously charming their more sophisticated "minders." (Filling in for Smith at some performances will be Kat Eggleston, who was so hilarious singing "Love Letter on a Fish" in "The Snow Queen").

The ever-fanciful and gently eccentric Thomas gracefully manipulates the many beguiling puppets designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock -- puppets that come in every shape, size and style, from marionette to giant-headed body puppet to paper cutouts and more, with a three-headed puppet of the "locked-out" seasons especially engaging. The performers' stylish Edwardian costumes are by Meredith Miller.

Free admission to the Field Museum is included in the price of the theater ticket, so take the opportunity to explore at least a small corner of the gargantuan place while you're there.

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