Children experiencing everyday anxiety and stress have a fluffy new role model. With her fuchsia skin and sky blue ponytail, Petunia (creator Laura Kay Clark) is a sweet relatable “Everychild.” Chatting with her friend Pumpkin Duck (puppeteer John Pickup; voice T.J. Bolden) she is excitedly picking out a jacket for her first day of school. But before she can eat her chocolate chip pancakes, the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano) arrives with his alluring backup troupe. He conjures images of mean teachers and unfriendly classmates until all she wants to do is get back into bed. Fortunately Mom (Renee Titus), who has regular doubts of her own, comes to the rescue with a series of mindfulness exercises. Petunia is only too grateful to learn new skills and even experiences the joy of passing them on to a new friend (Amanda Spencer).
After regrettably having to cancel in-person performances for safety reasons, New Ohio Theatre has made Petunia’s Big Day available On Demand. The Party Claw co-production is warm from the first note, with the cast greeting us at the door and leading us through the auditorium accompanied by upbeat piano. The book by Laura Kay Clark is based on her own Petunia’s Playhouse, an award-winning web series she created to give young children tools to better cope with the stress brought on by the COVID pandemic. With the shift to an online format, this lively show can now be experienced by families around the country.
On Safari, the video streaming was very stable and the audio well mixed with just a slightly muted mic on Petunia. While some of the opportunities for interactivity with younger audience members has been lost, the ability to see the details of the puppets (designed by Puppet Kitchen artist Eric Wright with additional puppets by designer Myra G. Reavis) and the fabulous touches in Petunia’s bedroom are improved from the cameras’ vantage points. As directed by Christina Rose Ashby, Petunia is in a window above the tiled stage so that she and her human cast-mates can see eye to eye. The brightly colored bedroom set designed by Reavis with its drawn-on doors and bed frame build on the musical’s storybook feel. The company of six (Puppeteer Julia Fein also lends a hand… BOTH) ably delivers the serviceable songs by Billy Recce. And there are still moments when a child at home can breathe along with the heroine or warn her of approaching Tummy Butterflies.
Aimed at theater-goers aged 6-12, Petunia’s Big Day is childlike, but not childish. The demonstrated tools are practical and easy to apply. It contains an important reminder that the practice of self-care isn’t only essential when there’s a virus circling. The common events depicted may even stimulate conversation about how to manage other uncomfortable emotions.
If your little one is feeling cooped up this holiday, I encourage you to take them for a Zoom visit with Xavi. She’s a creative young spirit and the central character of Journey Around My Bedroom, a puppet show presented by New Ohio Theatre for Young Minds. Like many children who have been isolated by the pandemic, Xavi is bouncing off the walls with boredom. Instead of being stuck at home, she wants to use her homemade wings and fly to the moon. With encouragement from her mother and an explorer who pays a visit all the way from 18th century France, Xavi learns to use her imagination to expand her space and take a trip within the safety of home.
The enchanting production is specifically designed to work over Zoom and can bring family members from different locations together for a shared experience. At intervals, audience members are given the opportunity to turn on their cameras and microphones and participate in Xavi’s travels. Willing volunteers help her find the right tools in her toy chest and sing a song of encouragement to help her overcome her fears. Post-show, they can ask the performers questions and take a look behind the scenes. The at-home packet in the show program includes a printable template to make a self-styled puppet and map in order for kids to continue the story in their own way.
Dianne Nora developed the plot line from the writings of Xavier de Maistre, produced when he was under house arrest. From the seeds of his unusual books, Nora has grown a charming story that easily incorporates lessons about bravery and appreciation and contains just enough maturity to keep supervising adults engaged. De Maistre literally drops into Xavi’s life when his balloon makes an unexpected landing in her bedroom, connecting the two adventurers.
The up-cycled cardboard puppets, meticulously designed by Myra Reavis with Ana M. Aburto, are similar to those used in Victorian toy theatre. Held together with brads so that they bend at the joints, they are assisted in their movement by outside hands that surprisingly never distract. Even Xavi’s dog Joseph is given distinct personality. Close-ups are achieved with larger cutouts of specific body parts and props. Miniature set pieces are organized on three separate stages that visually lead from one to the other. The distanced cast members appear to interact with clever cutting between cameras as directed by Jaclyn Biskup. Original songs and music by Hyeyoung Kim add to the joyful atmosphere.
Spoken word artist Starr Kirkland is our welcoming guide, appearing both as herself and as M. de Maistre. Giving voice to Xavi is Ashley Kristeen Vega whose upbeat warmth inspired one little girl in my audience to practically bounce into the performance. Rounding out the team is multi-hyphenate Laura Kay who subdues her comic chops and grounds the storytelling as the narrator and Xavi’s mother.
This imaginative production of Journey Around My Bedroom — fitting for this peculiar year — runs an attention-holding 35 minutes. Best viewed on a laptop or desktop, it’s being offered as a live stream on weekends thru January 11. This format will best suit outgoing children who will enjoy the interaction, as well as parents with flexible schedules. After the conclusion of the initial run, a prerecorded version of the show will be available on demand until February 11. All tickets are Pay-What-You-Will (suggested price is $25 for up to two viewers) and can be purchased through Ovationtix: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1033538 for live performances and https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/store/34708/alldonations/35894/dept/1499 for on demand.