Saturday, June 25, 2011

Wild Theater At The Zoo

Milwaukee Zoo’s Educational Theater for Kids

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Some time ago, Kohl’s Department Stores donated $1 million to the Milwaukee County Zoo with the idea of developing a live, family-friendly theater that would promote conservation and environmentalism through drama, puppetry, games and songs. It’s a program called Kohl’s Wild Theater At The Zoo. Clearly someone’s heart was in the right place on this, but consciousness-raising environmentalist theatre could potentially be quite pointless if the script isn’t written well enough.

I remember watching quite a few Earth Day theatre programs as a kid in the late ‘80’s. They raised awareness without really going into specifics, which meant that once you got the general idea they were trying to get across (pollution harms the environment and ecosystems—we really have to start looking at what we throw away and recycle, etc.) There really wasn’t much there specifically, which ended up being less educational and more motivational. We didn’t know exactly what to do, but we knew that we needed to start doing it.  

This past week I was able to catch one of the Wild Theater programs—a fun little piece called A Climb Through Time With Clues and Rhyme! It’s one of three 15-minute show’s on the Wild Theater’s premiere season. The script is surprisingly sophisticated for kid’s educational fare. The clever thing about the script’s composition is that there’s a little something that can be taken away from the program for someone of nearly every age group. (Okay, almost every age group. Our newborn daughter slept through much of it.)

The premise plays out quite concisely over the course of the 15 minute plot. There are two guys going 100 years into the future to see if the orangutan, (an endangered species with only less than 100,000 left in the wild) are still around. The two guys make it to Borneo 100 years from now and manage to find evidence of an orangutan, during which point, we get to find out what an orangutan’s diet consists of (durian fruit? Really!) and a few other things. Evidently, one of the men has an ulterior motive that has to do with the reason why orangutans are becoming endangered. There’s a solid take-away lesson here about palm oil that parents and kids should probably be paying attention to if they want to help out our Pongo cousins.* Theatre is an inherently social art form, so it tends to be focussed on social issues. It's surprisingly refreshing when it can address the more scientific end of things--even in a children's play. 

The acting was exceptionally good—on the whole, this 15 minute sort was on par with the type of thing one might find at First Stage. I honestly hope some of the $1 million is going to the actors. I’d recognized them from other shows, but hadn’t seen them often enough to be able to recognize them without a program. (There isn’t one.) Set and costuming are solidly well-produced with outdoor theatre in mind, Without giving too much away, an orangutan does show-up in the form of a puppet that speaks in syncopated rhyming couplets. Okay, so it’s impressive but it isn’t a third of $1 million that we’re seeing here. The money seems to be painstakingly spent here . . . once the summer is over ,the three shorts plays tour area schools.  

Milwaukee Zoo’s Wild Theater continues through September 5th in the farm. There are five free performances daily at 10 a.m., 12 noon, 1:45 p.m., 3:15 p.m., 4 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*And honestly, the way we're going, the rest of our primate cousins are going to be living museum pieces kept in zoos. Inside the next century or so there aren't going to be any left in the wild. I realize that, as primates, we're not real proud of our family tree. They don't wear clothes unless we dress them and they do the most embarrassing things. But seriously--is this any way to treat family? Really? It's time to grow-up and start giving our fellow primates the room they need to live in. It's only fair. Sorry, it's just something strange to get reminded of every time I visit the primate house at the zoo. On this particular visit to the zoo, my wife and baby and I hung out a little bit with the spider monkeys. The two of them weren't being entertaining. They weren't doing they're insanely graceful acrobatics. They just sat there like a couple of critics looking far more intelligent than those of us who had come to see them. You could kind of see the horror in their faces. There they were--among the last of their kind (nearly extinct) and they're on display for us--their more successful cousins who will eventually be going extinct due to OVER population. Kind of ironic . . . 

 

 

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