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Children's Theatre's 'Biggest Little House in the Forest' perfects the art of child's play

Autumn Ness with Fred the Frog
Courtesy of the Children's Theatre Company
Autumn Ness with Fred the Frog

When you're 4, the boundaries between make-believe and real life are so porous as to be inconsequential. As he recounts his day for us at bedtime, my son's adventures in the world of "let's pretend" are just as meaningful to him, just as real, as his backyard shenanigans with the other kids at day care.

Last weekend, my son and I went to see a play at the Children's Theatre Company; it was his first experience in a real, live theater. What struck me, as we watched the show, "The Biggest Little House in the Forest," was how authentically the intimate production echoed a preschooler's innate knack for imaginative play.

Autumn Ness, the show's sole performer, immerses herself in the sylvan world she creates as unselfconsciously and effortlessly as any 4-year-old, and she easily beguiles us, adults and kids alike, into joining her there. Between her deft, subtle work with the cleverly designed puppets that carry the action and her skillful narration, peppered with just the right amount of kidly silliness and audience participation, she has us in the palm of her hand from the moment she herds us into the theater. What's more, Ness manages to do so with a light touch, free from the cloying treacle or well-meaning condescension that plagues so many performances for small children.

The story's themes and narrative arc are familiar to anyone who's read picture books: a charming little house in the woods becomes home to a motley assortment of talking animals, welcomed in turn by the benevolent and motherly Bernice the Butterfly. The little household grows one by one as critters come to the door; conflict arises when a too-big bear, Bartholomew, wants to join in, too. As the story unfolds, everyone learns about sharing, finding friends in unexpected places, cooperation. But the message in this tale, while well-worn in contemporary kids' literature, feels organic to the story rather than engineered to impart "lessons."

"The Biggest Little House" is a small-scale production, situated in the intimate confines of the CTC's Cargill Stage. On the morning we attended, there were around 35 people there to see the show, most of whom were seated on low-slung, padded benches just a few feet from the action on stage. The performance run-time, at 45 minutes, is just right for small children.

From the moment you enter the theater, you're embraced by a cozy forest bower, which is dimly lit and dappled with leaf shadows and twinkly lights; at the center of the "forest" is a dollhouse-sized cottage on a "hill" but little else — just a few small earthen mounds and bits of greenery. The set details, minimalist but evocative, feel perfectly suited to the show; these trappings help the make-believe along, but the kids' imagination and old-fashioned storytelling are always in the foreground. That's as it should be, because the real fairy dust in this production comes from Ness' pitch-perfect delivery, expert puppetry, and unerring instinct for make-believe.

 "The Biggest Little House in the Forest," starring Autumn Ness, with set and puppet design by Eric Van Wyk, will be on the Cargill Stage at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis through June 20. Various times and ticket prices.

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