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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013

Lessons of Friendship and Respect

First Stage presents ‘Lois Ehlert’s Mole Hill Stories’

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The gentle, colorful fables of famed children’s author Lois Ehlert come to life in the world premiere of Mole Hill Stories, produced by First Stage in collaboration with Milwaukee’s Danceworks. The show is part of First Stage’s First Steps series, which introduces children ages 3-6 to live theater.

As the production begins, a handful of young actors become character types familiar to children, such as a fox, mole and raccoon. These non-threatening characters appear in three of Ehlert’s most popular stories: Mole Hill, Cucu and Moon Rope. Adapter Alvaro Saar Rios skillfully interweaves the stories, so that the effect of shifting from one to the next is seamless. Another notable feature of this production is that it is bilingual. The animals speak to each other in a lyrical blend of English and Spanish.

As the stories unfold, the characters share lessons of bravery, courage, friendship, teamwork and respect. For instance, when the mole decides to dig its home in a planned pathway through the forest, he is confronted by the Fox (Michael Cotey) and several other woodland creatures. They tell the mole to stop digging. But what else is a mole to do? The animals find that the mole’s solution to this dilemma is a clever and delightful one. At the opening performance, the mole was played by Haley Carter of the Paws cast. As is typical in First Stage productions, the younger children’s roles are double-cast.

The nine-person cast is dressed in identical, loose-fitting garments of blue and green fabric. Actors change their characters by adding appropriate “ears” and “tails.” The mole is dressed a bit more elaborately, like a spelunker. The resplendent “cucu” (Rana Roman) wears a colorful cape and headpiece to look like a peacock.

Preschoolers and kindergarteners can choose to sit on carpet squares on the floor or on low bleachers. The audience sits on all four sides of a padded, vibrantly colored carpet that serves as the performance space. Much of the action takes place at the children’s eye level, on or near the floor.

Directed by Desiree Rosas, Mole Hill Stories contains much more than simple lines of dialogue. The clever addition of Danceworks members Christal Wagner and Alberto J. Cambra enhances these enchanting tales. The dancers often seem to float and sway as if caught by a breeze. The dancing (choreographed by Dani Kuepper) adds another layer to the production. Lighting and sound effects further heighten the experience of attending live theater.

Mole Hill Stories
is a soft, gentle ride into the world of theater, but it is captivating enough to engage young children throughout its 45-minute performance. The show runs through Jan. 27 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St. For tickets, call 414-267-2961.