Mr. McGee & The Biting Flea at The Children’s Theatre Company

Mr. McGee & The Biting Flea publicity photo

The real test of theater is whether or not it works for the intended audience. Mr. McGee & the Biting Flea, the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company’s winter offering for young children, clearly knows its audience. CTC partnered with the Australian Patch Theatre Company, which created the show based on work by Pamela Allen, a well-known New Zealand author of children’s books.

Good children’s stories deliver a single, simple but meaningful point, illustrated in an engaging way. CTC follows this precept in its staging of six little stories, including Mr. McGee (represented by a balloon-headed puppet), Alexander the duckling, Belinda the cow, the King and his cooks, and Mary Liz, featuring the audience as a most convincing monster.

Lacking the technical wizardry for which CTC is renowned, but right in the pocket with the imaginative play for which pre-schoolers are renowned, the one-hour performance held a roomful of kindergarten hopefuls in rapt attention. I know this because they all responded in chorus with their scary monster roar right on cue – a good 40 minutes after one quick practice round, and I doubt that the entire audience had read the book.

With a set consisting of over-sized shelves filled with suitcases and the miscellany typical of a storeroom, three performers, Autumn Ness, Reed Sigmund and Max Wojtanowicz, build a “set” for each story. How they do that is as visually interesting (on a pre-school level, of course) as is the simple dilemma each new cast of characters face.

Much of the show is sung – often a cappella, sometimes with little more than an uncomplicated piano accompaniment. But the three-part harmonies in an array of character voices (harder than it sounds, especially picking pitches off the previous song) are just complex enough to provide a fitting superstructure for the action of the play, and were delivered cleanly with little fuss by Ness, Sigmund and Wojtanowicz.

After a small timing kink preceding the first of the six stories, the actors settled in to an easy rhythm, enjoying a lovely rapport with their amazingly well-behaved audience as they rollicked through the show, vaudevillian-style, suggesting that traditions in theater performance must be responding to something fundamental about what holds our attention. And, yes, the armpit fart, a man in a dress and stripping on stage is just as funny to a four-year-old.

Mr. McGee & the Biting Flea runs through February 21.

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