A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Reduxion Theatre stages “Classics for Kids” in new Automobile Alley space
The family-friendly series also will travel in April to Metropolitan Library System locations.
Last Saturday morning, Terry Veal died tragically and brought the house down.
The dozen or so children and adults who turned out for Reduxion Theatre’s second “Classics for Kids” program of the season laughed uproariously as the actor’s Touchstone character hit the Broadway Theater stage with many dramatic moans and groans, allegedly felled by a plastic arrow from a mock-up English longbow.
The loudest laughs came from my son, Gabriel, 7, who was experiencing Shakespeare for the first time and to that point had been more interested in scoring a pre-lunch Hershey’s bar than in the “Henry V” excerpt playing out on stage.
It’s amazing what a good death scene can do to catch a first-grader’s attention.
The next thing I knew, Gabe was volunteering to play Moonshine’s dog as the four-person company acted out the “Pyramus and Thisbe” drama from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” My boy was so interested in chatting — quietly, at least — with patient actress/puppeteer CQJessa Schinske that he almost missed his cue to bark, but still, his performance must be considered a success.
“My favorite part was me being the puppy,” Gabe said after the show. “I’ve never been on the stage before during a play. That was fun.”
Made for kids
Helping children find the fun in classical works is the goal of Reduxion’s “Classics for Kids” series, which is expanding with the company’s recent move into its larger performance space inside Automobile Alley’s Cadillac Building.
“I love it. I love performing for the kids, especially something like this that they’re not really quite familiar with. So we get to introduce them to this stuff,” said Veal, who recently retired from teaching theater at Classen School of Advanced Studies, after the show. “I wish I’d had this when I was a kid. I think it’s a great idea, a great experience.”
For parents who want to take their youngsters to a family-friendly show in a real theater space, Reduxion is staging “Classics for Kids” Saturday mornings in March in its Broadway Theater. In April, the company will take its 50-minute shows starring Professor Spillsby (Elizabeth Brooks) and his pals the Juggling Fiends on tour with free shows at various Metropolitan Library System locations.
While Reduxion Theatre has been taking its reimagined classics into local libraries since 2009, the company last summer launched an original series of Professor Spillsby shows as part of the library system’s popular Neighborhood Arts program. The summer run was such a hit that Dana Morrow, the Metro Library’s director of outreach, suggested Reduxion embark on a spring tour with multiple Professor Spillsby scripts, said Managing Director Erin Woods.
Last Saturday marked the debut of the second of four planned original plays, “Professor Spillsby Goes to the Festival.” In the show, the earnest Professor Spillsby and his troupe the Juggling Fiends — a trio of actors named for famous Shakespearean clowns: Touchstone (Veal), Falstaff (Sue Ellen Reiman) and Dogberry (Schinske), who also performs as a puppet named Moth — trek to the River Bottom Shakespeare Festival and tangle with Spillsby’s conniving college-days rival Ms. Crabtree (Veal) in a quest to win the fest’s science contest.
As men typically played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s day, the actors gleefully play across gender lines, often for big laughs from their young audiences.
“Of course, we love it! I get to play my Tennessee Williams heroine,” Veal said, taking on his fruity Ms. Crabtree warble.
“And I love to don a beard,” Brooks added, stroking the fake white locks.
Made from scratch
In the good professor’s newest adventure, history, physics and meteorology are intertwined with the famed St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V,” the melodramatic play-within-a-play from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and sea-worthy dialogue from “The Tempest.” The stage also is set for the next original story, “Professor Spillsby Hunts for Treasure,” premiering April 29 at the Warr Acres Library. “Professor Spillsby Meets Jane Austen” will debut during the series’ summer library run.
Brooks, touring manager for Oklahoma Children’s Theatre, developed the original characters and concept and writes the scripts with Erin Woods and Reduxion Artistic Director Tyler Woods.
“We came up with the first basic premise, which was a really boring professor giving a lecture … and a group of players comes along and interrupts him and shows him isn’t it fun to act it out,” Brooks said.
“It really builds upon the idea of accessibility,” added Erin Woods. “The idea of introducing Professor Spillsby, who is passionate about what he’s talking about, but a little bit boring and stale, is sort of the idea that a lot of grown-ups express, which is ‘when I learned this in school, this was boring.’” Professor Spillsby learns from the Juggling Fiends that Shakespeare can be exciting, and then he brings that into his academia. Which is a little bit like us saying ‘In a few years, you’re gonna learn this and it may be taught by someone who’s passionate, but you’re not getting the passion.’”
Since the first show, “Professor Spillsby Digs into Shakespeare,” drew largely from “Macbeth,” the acting troupe took the name the “Juggling Fiends” from the text. When my daughter Brenna, 3, despaired that she couldn’t get her picture taken with the Fiends since “I don’t know how to juggle,” the troupe laughingly assured her, “Neither do we!”
They sure juggle characters and sight gags, though.
“In a kids setting, it just really presented a whole lot of really silly things you could do with it in the actual Shakespeare’s text. So we use Shakespeare’s text, put it in a silly environment, and then with those same lines, you can make a whole bunch of different jokes with it and have fun with it. So here you’ve got little kids listening to Shakespeare and having a good time,” Brooks said.
“I’ll never forget on our tour last year there was a little (girl) — she can’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old — listening to a scene from “Macbeth” and just laughing and clapping. And I thought, ‘OK, success.’”
More success: Later that Saturday, Gabriel took the initiative to hang his blankets from his bunk bed, don a bandana and stage “Pirates,” an original 52-second play about a sea captain who sails into adventure, wrecks his ship and still manages to bring home treasure for his mommy.
As the mommy, I got a handful of imaginary gold and, even more precious, the hope that my son might just grow up to love Shakespeare as much as I do.
Reduxion Theatre’s “Classics for Kids”
When: 11 a.m. Saturdays in March.
Where: The new Broadway Theater, 914 N Broadway Ave., Suite 120.
Cost: $10 for adults, $7 for students and children.
When: Tuesdays evenings, plus a Saturday matinee, in April.
Where: Various Metropolitan Library System locations.