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Children's Theater Review : 'Little Red': Punch to Go With Lunch

August 27, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — If you want to add some zing to the kids' lunches this weekend, you could toss a couple of jalapenos into theB & Js, or you could bring them here today or Sunday for a noonish performance of "Little Red and the Hoods."

Personally, I'd go for the latter. Presented by the Paper Bag Players in a cozy 60-seat converted industrial-park space called the Children's Theatre Village, this snack-size production features five local teens and adults who offer generous portions of belly laughs and warm fuzzies for the kids.

Playwright Karen Boettcher-Tate is responsible for much of the humor. Her take on "Little Red Riding Hood" brims with puckish characters, ranging from a tough wolf who turns sheepish at the last minute, to a sweet granny who moonlights as a superhero.

Director Bunny Lawson, head of a South County children's theater school, gives her actors a free hand, and, at last Sunday's show, the cast responded with enough silliness and enjoyment to rope in even an adolescent boy.

A strong emphasis on audience participation keeps children involved mentally and physically, even before the first lines are spoken. In a twist on dinner theater, children are invited to bring sack lunches (hence the name) on stage at 11:30 a.m. While the children nosh, cast members apply their makeup and chat with them.

The visits give children a chance to learn more about theater craft as it is taking place (the most often asked questions last Sunday: "Why do you wear so much makeup?" and "Can I try some on?") and, for younger ones particularly, allows them to feel comfortable with the concept of grown-ups playing make-believe. One actress let a young girl help brush and style her hair for her role.

As show time nears, the makeup tables get put away; the kids take their seats, and the cast goes into the house to mingle.

Using minimal props and costumes, "Little Red" (which ends Sunday) uses a well-worn gimmick to bring children into the action almost immediately. Portraying a traveling troupe of actors who have lost their way--not to mention a good chunk of their worldly goods in a nearby swamp--the cast enlists the help of the audience to help them put on a show, but first they have to decide what show. After some quibbling, punctuated by Paul Smet's wonderfully garbled Shakespearean monologue, the cast settles on "Little Red Riding Hood."

For the rest of the hourlong show, children willingly help move (or be) props, perform as "dirty rotten scoundrels" to the devilish Ma Sugar or serve as a "super brave person," delivering the "official document of punishment" to the repentant wolf.

As the troupe's leader and the show's narrator, actress Betsey Sebade has the difficult task of choosing volunteers from the audience members jumping out of their seats in eagerness. The process does take some time and occasionally slows down the otherwise snappy pace of the show, but to the kids, the experience is apparently well worth the delays.

Boettcher-Tate's script stays comfortingly close to the original tale but updates it with some contemporary quips and themes. Little Red and her mom do live in the forest, and they do have a granny who happens to be ill, but the three ladies are also budding entrepreneurs on the brink of making it big with Mama's fabulous, super-secret-recipe cookies. Ma Sugar and the wolf, however, want that recipe.

When Little Red journeys to Granny's, Mom sends her off with some common-sense tips about strangers. And when trouble comes a-knocking in the form of the wolf, the females don't depend on a passing woodsman for help but manage their own rescue quite handily, thank you.

Smet plays things wonderfully large as the wolf. He cuts an imposing figure, and his voice booms through the tiny theater, but he has a goofy vulnerability that ingratiates him to young children.

Michelle Fincher plays the dastardly Ma Sugar with aplomb, and Lori Barnes, a lanky blonde with a certain Sandy Duncan-ish appeal, is well cast as the ingenue who plays Little Red. Marla Weingart, as Red's Mom and Granny, sometimes takes the campiness too far, but is a hoot. * "Little Red and the Hoods," Children's Theatre Village, 23891 Via Fabricante, Mission Viejo, today and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. Closes Sunday. (714) 581-5402. Tickets: $5. Running time: 1 hour. (Note: Lunch time starts at 11:30 a.m.; the performance begins around 12:15 p.m.)

Presented by the Paper Bag Players. Book by Karen Boettcher-Tate. Directed by Bunny Lawson. Lighting: Derek Paulus. Stage manager: Jim Lawson.

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