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LIGHTER SIDE OF TUBERS : The Potato People Come to Costa Mesa

January 20, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for the Times Orange County Edition.

Ah, the potato. High in nutrients and dandy baked, mashed or fried, but let's face it: As a source for rollicking family fun, spuds are duds.

Or so you thought. This weekend, a Canadian touring company making its Orange County debut promises to reveal the lighter side of tubers in "Survive the Great Outdoors!," a one-hour family show featuring a handful of masked characters known as the Potato People. Produced by Theatre Beyond Words of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the show is recommended for preschoolers through senior citizens and features nonverbal theater, puppetry, masks and music.

The Potato People will perform Sunday, Jan. 23, at 2:30 p.m. and Monday, Jan. 24, at 9:45 and 11:45 a.m. at the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. (Monday's shows are intended for school audiences, but single tickets will be available.)

According to Theatre Beyond Words' managing director, David Paquet, "Survive the Great Outdoors!" is one of the newer shows the 15-year-old company has built around the Potato family, which includes bustling housewife-at-large Momma, bumbling but well-intentioned Poppa and their adorable sprout Nancy.

In this show, Poppa has been roped into taking Nancy and the neighbor kids, Margaret and George Beanstalk, on a camping trip (Momma wisely stays home). The outing throws them together with an assortment of Potato and non-Potato characters including the clueless Forest Ranger Ralph and several woodland critters. Large hand puppets, waltzing trees and "a radio-controlled skunk . . . about the size of a small dog" are among the comic visual effects, Paquet said.

He added that though the actors do not speak on stage, there is an "almost seamless" background of original music in styles ranging from pop to classical. Offstage, actors and crew provide such sound effects as burps, giggles and wild animal calls.

Paquet says the lack of dialogue is one of the main reasons the Potato People can reach such a broad age range. "We try to tailor the contents so there is lots of slapstick to amuse the children, and some character insights into family situations that adults can enjoy. As a viewer, you can provide your own subtext (to the action on stage) by throwing in your particular life experiences. The basic story is quite clear because of the abilities of the artists, but everyone's interpretation of it is different."

To achieve their potato state, the actors wear large, white masks of papier-mache that cover their entire heads. Except for a pair of blank eyes, a lumpy nose and some nondescript hair (which Momma enhances with a few stylishly-placed curlers), each mask is left expressionless.

"Again," Paquet explained, "you get to fill in the detail for yourself. The masks are neutral, but when (the actors) tilts their heads or thrusts their chins, or the light hits them right, you swear you see the characters' expressions change."

The Potato People acts were among the first developed by Theatre Beyond Words and, Paquet said, they have remained the most popular, having played venues from the Lincoln Center in New York City to the International Children's Festival in Spain; they have been seen by some two million people in Canada, the U.S., Western Europe and Russia. The Potato People have had guest spots on "Sesame Street" and "The Elephant Show," a musical variety program that features fellow Canadian entertainers Sharon, Lois and Bram.

Scheduling conflicts have prevented the group from reaching Southern California as often as Paquet would like, although he said that is slowly changing. Just prior to their Costa Mesa shows, the Potato People will be featured at Dorsey High School in central L.A. in conjunction with L.A.'s Best, an outreach project for "at-risk" students co-sponsored by the mayor's office and the Music Center.

Other shows in the Theatre Beyond Words repertoire include "Suite Potato," a family-oriented show performed with local symphonies and, for adult audiences, "Night Train to Foggy Bottom," a new, movement-based fantasy that Paquet describes as "one man's discovery of his past." Company members also teach theater courses at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Although he said Theatre Beyond Words will continue to experiment with new methods and audiences, Paquet expects the Potato People to continue as an important staple for the troupe. But, he added, even the venerable Potatoes are due for a change.

"We have had some complaints about Momma being too perfect," he acknowledged with a laugh. "We're working on making her more laid back; maybe she'll spend more time relaxing and less time cleaning. A lot of people have been saying she should get out of the house and be a real estate agent or something."

Poppa, however, will remain the same lovable nincompoop that Paquet says has appealed to youngsters for years.

"We like to poke fun at authority," Paquet observed. "Basically, the stories are written from a child's perspective. The kids are always smart and with it, and the adults are usually out to lunch. The kids really love that."

What: The Potato People in "Survive the Great Outdoors!"

When: Sunday, Jan. 23, at 2:30 p.m. and Monday, Jan. 24, at 9:45 and 11:45 a.m.

Where: The Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Fairview Road and drive south.

Wherewithal: Tickets for the Jan. 23 show are $5 to $7 in advance, $6 to $9 at the door. General admission for the Jan. 24 show is $5 in advance, $7 at the door.

Where to call: (714) 432-5880.

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