at Live Theatre

My friend Will, who’s three years old, assures me he wasn’t scared during The Dinosaur Play, Livewires’ new production. What about that part where he almost crawled up his mother’s head? That, I guess, was just a sign of solidarity with the rest of the preschoolers present.

I’d been scared, however, when I packed Will, six-year-old Daniel, and their mom into my car and headed up to Evanston. Daniel is a dinosaur data bank–I was sure this kid wasn’t going to be convinced about anything.

“Dinosaurs are real big,” he told me before the lights went out. I looked around the tiny theater and tried to warm up to the reality of life-size human beings playing prehistoric monsters. “Bigger than your dad?” I asked.

Daniel looked at me askance; obviously I’d just become uncool. “They’re bigger than buildings,” he said. It was clear there was gonna be no fooling these guys. I shrank in my seat, preparing for disaster.

The Dinosaur Play opens with a gigantic-egg sitting idly onstage. A hapless mammal, played by the very winning John Bowyer, ambles on to greet us and the egg, which might well be the last of its kind. “What are we going to do?” Bowyer asked the kids.

“Hatch it!” yelled Daniel, pointing at the egg. “Sit on it!”

The kid was positively glowing. His mother, on the other hand, had now sunk even deeper into her seat than I was in mine. And Will–well, he was entranced with the possibilities of a dinosaur coming to life right there.

This, of course, was my fear. I mean, so far these two seemed engaged enough, but what about when the dinosaurs really appeared? But once Tank, a surly triceratops, exploded onto the scene, all my fears vanished. All I had to do was look over at Will and Daniel to know that we had a hit on our hands.

Tank–big, green, and growling–was ably played by Joe Costa, in a costume that simply thrilled the imagination. His tail was long and fat, his mouth was beaklike and ferocious, and his chest was scaled and festooned with military medals. Tank exemplified the care that went into the details of all the dinosaur costumes; they made The Dinosaur Play fun even for adults. Although none of the others was quite up to that level–except possibly Baby Tank–the kids loved them all, and what more can you ask?

The Dinosaur Play takes place at a time when dinosaurs are diminishing in number and humankind is taking over the earth. The abandoned egg in need of a mother is at the center of the plot, and as in any good kiddie show, the ending reinforces family values and provides plenty of happiness. For its 40 minutes The Dinosaur Play kept its tiny fans in rapture, was scary in parts (despite Will’s assertions to the contrary), and had a few moral lessons tossed in to satisfy the parents.

Although certainly you can get away with a lot in a kids’ play, there were a few lapses in logic and some jarring introductions of new elements. At one point, for example, the mammal requests that the audience help him make the brontosauruses speak. So we all sit there chanting, “I wish she could speak, I wish she could speak.” But all this focused energy does nothing for the mute beast, and the mammal just shrugs, telling us it hasn’t worked. So what’s the point?

In another bizarre twist, the mammal suddenly acquires the ability to freeze time, a trick he uses to save Tank and his family. OK, time freezing is a staple of cartoons and comic books, but here this talent might have come in mighty handy a lot earlier, yet the mammal doesn’t display it until the very end.

When I talked to Daniel about all this afterward, he agreed that there were problems. “But it was really good anyway,” he said. And frankly, that’s a much better recommendation than mine.