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Bailiwick Repertory

A good children’s play has more to tell its young audience than they can immediately absorb, planting seeds for future harvests. Charmagne Spencer’s very hip Hang Loose, Mother Goose is a children’s tale that celebrates the power of make-believe and enlists its young audience in its pursuit.

To do that Hang Loose comes up with some inventive ways to work its audience into its act, which is appropriate for a story that celebrates resourcefulness. The involvement isn’t just a onetime thing like the famous “Do you believe in fairies?” moment in Peter Pan; it comes as part of the plot. Judging from the results, this is how a lot of kids want children’s theater to be. Spencer’s play also serves as an antidote to what kids usually do on Saturday mornings, i.e., marinate their minds in front of the tube; the plot encourages the kids in the theater to actually enter the story and to participate in its resolution.

Mother Goose has been captured by the Crooked Old Man, who thinks nursery rhymes are old hat. He thinks kids will be more interested in the violence of his own life. So he imprisons Mother Goose in the giant storybook she lives in, and tries to force her to ghostwrite his autobiography. If Mother Goose is a symbol for gentle make-believe and the power of the imagination to improve on reality, the Crooked Old Man, who’s cynical and selfish, represents mindless mayhem and our inability to see beyond the obvious.

The play asks its young audience to decide which should prevail–Mother Goose’s innocent story telling or the nasty old man’s ego-tripping? The outcome is left up to five of the famous bird’s children: Mary (known for her lamb), contrary Mary (the two will not be confused), corner-dwelling Jack Horner, gluttonous Georgie Porgie, and Simple Simon.

Besides rescuing their mother, the five kids have another crisis to resolve. Unless they can return to the storybook by nightfall they’ll turn into human beings, unable to imagine anything outside of themselves. (Clearly this play takes a different view of humanity than Pinocchio.)

Happily, with a combination of pluck and luck and some help from the kids in the audience, who shout out all sorts of sensible suggestions, the nursery-rhyme gang manages to trap the Crooked Old Man.

It’s debatable how much of the conflict between the philosophies of Mother Goose and the Crooked Old Man really registers with a young crowd. What the kids will immediately enjoy are the opportunities Hang Loose offers to become a part of the action. Among others, a tiny volunteer gets to jump over Jack’s candlestick, five kids come onstage to imitate the trees hung with silver bells and cockleshells in contrary Mary’s garden, and one tot gets to impersonate the pie man Simple Simon met.

Apart from its subliminal messages, the play provides an unforced pleasure in the delight on a kid’s face when she’s suddenly changed from a spectator into a tree onstage. Besides, being confident enough to play onstage is a step toward the sort of self-reliance with which Hansel and Gretel outwit the witch and Mother Goose’s children trap the Crooked Old Man (in a tricky game of “Simon Says”).

The audience finally votes on the merits of the Old Man’s autobiography versus Mother Goose’s deathless verse–and so far the imagination has won every election.

Directed by Alexander Wild, a DePaul drama student who’s young enough to remember what makes kids laugh, the equally young cast of seven are clearly having as much fun as they offer. With the highest energy I’ve seen on a stage, the apprentice actors make up in enthusiasm what their parts lack in nuance.

As the title character, Julie Alexander depicts the sort of distracted, bookish parent who practically forces independence on her flock–just by leaving them alone. With a menacing stubbled face and coal-red eyes, Darren Stephens’s Crooked Old Man exudes hard-core selfishness but mellows nicely at the end when he’s forgiven. And the ultimate forgiveness fits this show’s credo like a glove.