Home / Arts / Theater / First Stage’s Winning ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’
Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

First Stage’s Winning ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’

Silly antics highlight First Steps program for Milwaukee children’s theater

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Ask any preschooler what happens when “you give a mouse a cookie,” and you’ll get an immediate answer: “He’ll want a glass of milk!” Well, that’s only the beginning of author Laura Numeroff’s tale about a young boy who befriends a mischievous mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The rest of the story unfolds in a smart and snappy adaptation by First Stage Children’s Theater. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie continues through Nov. 22 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

The show is part of the First Steps series, a relatively new effort by First Stage to introduce very young children to the enjoyment of live theater. They have made it extremely easy for a 3- to 6-year-old audience to feel right at home. First off, many of the “seats” are carpet squares placed on the floor, where children can easily relax on mom or dad’s lap. Another option is space on wide, carpeted steps located further back in the room. Shows are short: 45 minutes without an intermission (which eliminates begging for cookies and juice in between acts). And if the current production is any indication, the First Steps programs are bursting with kid-friendly antics. For instance, the extremely flexible actor who portrays the mouse rarely sits still (or shuts up). The audience especially appreciates his pratfalls and attempts at disco dancing. Aside from some brief musical cues that parents will appreciate, the show is totally in sync with the kids.

In addition to the Mouse, the two-actor play includes a middle-school-aged actor (child actors are always double-cast). In this performance, the role of the Boy was played by seventh-grader Maxwell Zupke. He seems extremely comfortable onstage and enunciates his lines so clearly that (easily distracted) kids can still keep track of the plot. Just as in the book, the Boy anxiously tries to meet the mouse’s demands without trashing his mother’s kitchen. A bit of clever stage magic “transforms” routine household items into gigantic props that overwhelm the intrepid mouse. It must be noted that the young audience was particularly drawn to the oversized crayons, a glass of milk, a mirror, a blanket-sized bandana handkerchief, etc.

As the Mouse, professional actor Jordan Ahnquist displays a wonderful knack for physical comedy. A nonstop talker, the Mouse must keep his patter going while performing all sorts of stunts. (One of them includes falling into the enormous glass of milk.) Ahnquist makes it look so easy as he scampers all over the set, which is designed to look like an oversized kitchen.

Kudos to director John Maclay for fully engaging the show’s audience. Parents will appreciate the show’s fun, upbeat theme. There’s nothing scary here. The Mouse, for instance, wears just a few furry patches that peek out from his overalls, a whiskered face and an oversized pair of Mickey Mouse-type ears. This is no huge, hairy mouse with glittering eyes a la The Nutcracker. Overall, it’s a wonderful first production for young children.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie continues at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center through Nov. 22.

PERFORMANCE REVIEW

David Gaines’ Masterful ‘Samurai’ Dance

Theatre Gigante entertains with ‘Night at the Movies’

By John Schneider

In A Night at the Movies, Theatre Gigante’s entertaining double bill of performance pieces, my greatest pleasure came from watching these reassuringly seasoned and generous performers—and in the case of David Gaines, a master technician of physical theater—execute highly stylized material so naturally.

…and…Action! is Malcolm Tulip’s 30-minute piece for Isabelle Kralj, Mark Anderson and John Kishline. Framed by bits from the Casablancasoundtrack, three delicate, vulnerable and anxious actors meet to take a screen test, or else this is the screen test, or the filmmaking process, or the finished film. Within a gracefully written hall of mirrors that obliterates distinctions between reality and artifice, Tulip gives each performer two affecting, short arias of self-revelation, ending with Kralj’s touching assertion that when she’s dancing, nothing else exists. Anderson was especially striking in melding movement and speech.

Gaines gave the consummate performance of the night. 7 (x1) Samurai is his hour-long, one-man version of Kurosawa’s classic film Seven Samurai.The brilliance of the composition and execution is indescribable in a short review. Using two beautiful masks and his endlessly plastic body and voice, he portrays all the characters and gruesome action of the film. What’s missing, necessarily, are the gorgeous landscapes and stunning visual compositions that, as it turns out, are the movie’s soul. Still, with his impeccable timing, and always alive in every atom of his body, Gaines provided an outrageous, uncannily moving example of a performer at one with his art.

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