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Not only good, but good for you

With imaginative flair, the children's `Upside Down Show' aims to model critical thinking and cooperation.

October 18, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Shane Dundas and David Collins, a pair of Australians also known as the Umbilical Brothers, practice what might be called mime with noise. They've spent about 15 years at this, including American tours, appearances on the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows, and a slot at Woodstock '99. They provided all the voices and the vocally produced sound effects for the British-produced cartoon series "Maisy," and clips of their various onscreen performances are all over YouTube. I am sorry to say I have never heard of them until now.

Now they are starring in a kids' show of their own, in which (to judge by those YouTube clips) they use exactly the same skill sets and performance rhythms and some of the same ideas that they use in their adult presentations: "The Upside Down Show," which premiered this week on Noggin, is no different in kind from what they have trotted out for groovy Fringe Festival crowds, or before Queen Elizabeth II (the woman, not the ocean liner) at the 2005 Royal Command Variety Performance.

Co-created with Belinda Ward, a "Sesame Street" veteran, and developed by Sesame Workshop, "The Upside Down Show" is not only good, but good for you: Among other claims the network makes is that it "models a think-outside-the-box attitude," "reinforces critical thinking skills such as making predictions and noticing connections" and "models cooperation and negotiation," which seems true enough, and admirable enough, and for that matter are the sorts of things adults are routinely asked to practice at corporate retreats and such. You are never too old to reinforce your critical thinking skills.

But what matters most is that it is delightful.

Now, I may be more susceptible than most people of my certain age to these things: I noticed, as I watched the show for the first time, that I was sitting cross-legged on the floor about a foot from the TV screen, absolutely entranced -- all that was needed to complete the picture of myself as a 7-year-old child was a wax paper bag full of Sugar Pops, or Corn Pops as they cleverly call it now. But everyone -- anyone not too calcified to suspend a little disbelief now and then -- becomes a child before a magic act. And like a magic act, this is all about making you see what isn't there, making the impossible possible, the unreal real.

The Umbilicals produce worlds out of thin air. They are joined regularly by Mrs. Foil (Amanda Bishop), who is their foil; a puppet, named Puppet; the Shmuzzies, colorful puff balls who can play the marimba; and a Voice From Above that sets them on this path or that. But much of the show is played out as a duo against a background of pure white, just Shane and David working with few or no props. It's fast-paced and kinetic, but smooth -- a kind of dance, almost.

The central idea of the series is that you have been handed a remote control -- a remote that controls not the television but Shane and David themselves, a conceit they developed in their grown-up stage show "Speedmouse." In addition to the familiar "pause" and "play" functions, it contains an echo button, a fog-light button, a high-voice button, a humongous button, a minute (as in very small) button, a fast-talking button, an unstick button, a jiggle button, a wiggle button and, naturally, an upside-down button, and as many other buttons as they want to subject themselves to. Sent into slow motion or fast-forward or reverse, they use their bodies, not visual tricks, to create the effect.

Granted, this is a strange sort of interactivity: The remote control as a childhood plaything seems to presage an adulthood of never getting up from the couch, of watching professionals be entertaining and active in your stead. And of course, it's a theatrical conceit that requires no actual participation, past pretending to push a button. And we are already a nation of button pushers.

But most everything about the show requires you to use your imagination. As you or your parents or your grandparents might have sometime said, the difference between the Age of Radio and the Age of Television was that the former required you to picture things. When Shane and David wash their pet elephant, there is no elephant on the screen. But they aren't washing an invisible elephant: They're washing the elephant that lives in your mind's eye, an elephant that they put there by sculpting the space around it. Fido the Fly is similarly implied. In one passage, David blocks Shane's way with a wall, a porcupine and a moat (he digs the moat, fills it with water, and floats in it), all by suggestion. The lesson you take away is that life is not only what you make it, but what you make up.


`The Upside Down Show'

Where: Noggin

When: 1:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Encores 8 a.m. Monday through Friday.

Rating: TV-Y (all children)

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