nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 28, 2006
A tremendous storm sweeps through the stage and colorful socks are flying everywhere! So begins Theater Terra's production of Little Donkey. This charming adaptation of a popular Dutch series (by Rindert Kromhout and illustrated by Annemare van Haeringen) uses Bunraku-style puppets and charming puppeteers to pull off a meandering and very affecting story about the nature of friendship.
After the storm has passed, Mother Donkey's house is destroyed and the socks that she washes have been blown about everywhere. Friends Badger and Goat come by to help out as best they can so that, in a rather different but still habitable form, the house is re-built. Most but not all of the socks from Mother Donkey's launderette are found. And of course, the ones still missing belong to the dreaded Marabou, an enormous bird of whom everyone is afraid. Most of what is seen of Marabou are his enormous legs but occasionally his head dips down and peers about; without being too scary, it is obvious why everyone is frightened of him.
While the sock hunt continues, Little Donkey goes to play with his friend Yakky the Yak, but is rejected when Yakky gets invited to play with Ibis, whose father owns a toy store. So, Little Donkey goes off to find the lost socks of Marabou and meets the fearsome bird, who turns out to actually be a very good dancer and a new friend. By the end, in Party Pig's tent, everyone has met and no one is mad or afraid any more.
The cavalier dynamics of friendship are played out by the engaging Little Donkey (Sven Rudolf Polak), light-hearted Yakky (Ruth Kahmann) and with bratty relish by Ibis (Babbe Groenhagen). Thy share one of the most memorable tunes in the production, "Little Donkey Cannot Play." One of the best things about this part of the story is the matter-of-fact way in which having multiple friends is introduced and contrasted with "two-against-one" behavior. The idea of having a friend and then having to share that friend with others is difficult for many children (and some adults) to understand. Without moralizing, there is conveyed here a sense that friendship is sometimes fluid and allowing a friend to have other friends is part of it.
All of the characters are created using Bunraku-style puppets, which tend to be large and operated by one to three people. Traditionally, the puppeteer wears black and may or may not be hooded. In other puppet shows I have seen, the puppet is the performer, but here that emphasis is blurred. Kahmann is most successful at giving focus to her puppet while fully committing, but as the performers are all strong, the varieties within puppet/puppeteer relationship are interesting. Where it was least successful for me was when Groenhagen stepped entirely to the side of her puppet and into her own light for a song—it just seemed odd as elsewhere the primacy of the puppet was observed. The puppets are styled very much like large stuffed animals, and there is a sense that the puppeteers are playing with them in the way that children re-enact with their own toys. It is subtly recognizable play for the audience.
And the experience of the New Victory cannot be beat! Everyone of every age should experience this lovely space and its fantastic house staff. If a house staff reflects the personality of the producing entity, then the New Victory staff must be good people indeed. Their welcoming attitude creates a wonderful energy. The space itself is a jewel, reflecting the style of a 19th century theatre, and there is immediately a sense of occasion upon entering it. Although the seating is well-designed and comfortable, booster cushions are made readily available for smaller audience members to ensure they don't miss a thing. It is a spectacular introduction to theatre-going and a very enjoyable experience for all.