Chicago Children’s Theatre

at North Shore Country Day School

Kids have terrible taste. They like colors that verge on the garish. They’ll eat things that are purple or chartreuse, as long as those things are unbearably sweet. And when it comes to entertainment, they won’t sit still for anything that’s not loud, action-packed, and a little scary.

This makes “good” children’s theater hard to define. Good adult theater tends toward subtlety, complexity, and harmony. A good play in the opinion of grown-ups engages the head as well as the heart. For kids, a good play is more visceral. The characters must be cartoonish, the plot fast-paced, and the costumes a riot of color. Remember, we’re talking about an audience that sees catharsis in Saturday-morning cartoons.

So Chicago Children’s Theatre is terrific. The premiere production, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is staged with intelligence and grace. The costumes–including some wonderful masks–are lush and colorful; the set is simple but evocative; and the cast–consisting primarily of graduates of the DePaul Theatre School–is highly accomplished. I had a great time.

My three children, however, were more restrained in their praise. My five-year-old son watched carefully at first, but his attention tended to drift. At one point, he even tried to talk me into leaving, until a well-timed explosion onstage changed his mind. My ten-year-old daughter, already enamored of films like Dirty Dancing and Adventures in Babysitting, thought it was “OK,” although she clearly was underwhelmed. And my seven-year-old daughter, who is the perfect age for children’s theater, was intrigued. Though overtired, she paid attention throughout. She understood the plot, examined each character closely, and decided Karin was very pretty. Still, she almost dozed off at one point.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon is an old Scandinavian fairy tale retold by Brian Kral. It’s about Karin, a Norwegian girl who goes to work as a servant for a great white bear to earn money for her impoverished parents. But the gentle bear, whose name is Peder, is actually a handsome prince. A troll queen has transformed him into a bear and plans to have him marry her daughter, who is, well–a troll. The presence of Karin in the palace of the “bear” upsets both the queen and her daughter, who are disguised as the bear’s servants. They trick her into violating Peder’s only rule–that she never peek into his bedchamber at night. As Karin does so, she discovers that Peder is transformed back into a handsome prince when he sleeps. She is so astonished by the sight that she leans forward for a closer look and spills candle wax on him. For some reason, this breaks the spell and allows the troll queen to sweep him away to the troll castle located “east of the sun, west of the moon.” There the troll queen puts Peder into a stupor and proceeds with the wedding plans.

Karin, lost in the frigid wilderness, lies down to sleep, and receives a visit from three old hags who help her. In exchange for some bread and cheese and the pearls from the dress she is carrying, the hags give Karin a magic comb and scarf and persuade the four winds to carry her to the troll castle. Inside, Karin tricks the troll princess into granting her one hour alone with the sleeping Peder. Although menaced by a hulking troll named Horick and two ugly gargoyles Karin receives help from two stone figures who tell her how to revive the young man.

While the details of the plot are obscure for children, the essentials are clear–Karin loves Peder, and the trolls are evil. That’s really all children need to grasp to enjoy this show, but the frills are nice too–the swirling choreography of the winds, for example, as they sweep Karin to the troll castle.

The acting is uniformly solid. Claire DeCoster, as Karin, and Joe Anthony Quinn, as Peder, are the classic fairy-tale couple–good-looking, noble, and a bit stuffy. The trolls, on the other hand, are clowns full of the silliness that makes cartoons so popular with kids. As the troll princess, Tina Gluschenko snorts and hisses at her rival, evoking gales of laughter from the audience. The jokes about her long nose, which protrudes vividly from the half-mask she wears over her eyes and cheeks, were especially popular.

As Horick, Daniel Farmer comes closest to a full-blown cartoon. Huge and hulking, with a grotesque mask and wig, he grunts and growls like a monster who eats Smurfs for breakfast.

And Mary Mulligan cleverly portrays the troll queen as a pushy, demanding mother intent on landing a handsome, wealthy husband for her daughter.

Chicago Children’s Theatre comes about as close as possible to being both tasteful and exciting for children. Sure, director Rives Collins could have cranked up the pace a bit, and a little more overacting wouldn’t have hurt. Also, a few more special effects might have helped hold the attention of younger audience members.

But on the whole, the founders of the Chicago Children’s Theatre, Nan Zabriskie and David L. Avcollie, are operating on a sound premise–that good children’s theater is, above all else, good theater. Their first production signals the arrival of a first-rate children’s theater in the Chicago area.