Biggest Little House In The Forest at The Children's Theatre Company

Photo by Dan Norman, courtesy of the The Children’s Theatre Company

What a pleasure to actually see Autumn Ness. In The Biggest Little House In The Forest (on the Children’s Theatre Co.’s Cargill Stage, 2400 3rd Ave. S., Minneapolis, through June 20, childrenstheatre.org) Ms. Ness wears none of the feature disguising makeup or the over-the-top costume effects that marked her work in Cinderella, The Iron Ring, etc. Thus I can take great pleasure in reporting that she’s wonderful. From the moment she rides into the lobby on her bicycle and invites the audience into the beautifully appointed Cargill Stage, Ms. Ness is firmly in charge. We’d follow her anywhere.

Note that The Biggest Little House is for the youngest audiences: several of my fellow play-goers were wearing diapers. The story (very nicely adapted by Rosanna Staffa from a book by Djemma Bider) is simplicity itself: it’s “a beautiful day in the Forest” and Bernice the Butterfly stumbles upon a mysteriously empty house. She moves in, soon to be followed by Millie Mouse, then Fred Frog, etc. Until Bartholomew Bear (my personal favorite) lumbers along and in the middle of a huge rainstorm (created by the audience), he… Well, I’ll leave this to your imagination.

It’s a sweet story but the real treat is Autumn Ness’s deft performance. She owns one of those theatrical, larger-than life faces. She also boasts that winning combination of sweetness and maturity that young children adore (I’m partial to it myself). She tells the story using puppets and a terrific jewel box set (designed by Eric J. Van Wyk), filled with nooks and crannies, hidden props, etc. It’s a source of constant astonishment. The story rings out clear and compelling and Ms. Ness keeps the young audience in the palm of her hand. When she blows bubbles, they fall about.

Designer Van Wyk is aided immeasurably by Mary Anna Culligan‘s costumes and (especially) by Rebecca Fuller Jensen‘s gorgeous lighting. Victor Zupanc creates some marvelous music box underscoring, enough to keep the action focused, but otherwise unobtrusive. The colored leaves lend the space a lovely and rich autumnal feel.

CTC keeps the Cargill playing space small and intimate and perfect. Major praise goes here to artistic director (and the play’s director) Peter Brosius. The space could have been made larger (and more remunerative), but at great cost to the delicate sweetness of the story. He refrains.

Here’s my Big Idea: parents, lovely as this play is it’s very similar to the stories you’ve already been reading to your children. So forward a link to this review to your parents and let Grandma and/or Grandpa fork over the dollars for this play while you repair to your favorite restaurant for a nutritious child-free meal. Everyone will have a great time.

Highly recommended.

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