nytheatre.com review by Rohana Elias-Reyes
October 3, 2009
My House, part of New Victory Theater's Scottish Festival, was developed by Andy Manley in association with Starcatchers, a Scottish organization dedicated to developing theatrical works for babies and young children. Though I am both a mother of young children and a huge theatre fan, I was skeptical of the idea. Babies go through huge developmental changes to reach early childhood. How could you possibly make theatre that appeals to children along such a wide spectrum of cognitive (not to mention toilet-training) ability?
Andy Manley has an answer: simply, in a way that mimics a young child's investigation of his environment and the objects in it. He employs varying repetition, a small number of objects, and a childlike joy in the absurd to play house and invite the small children in the audience to join him in his exploration.
When my four-year-old and I got to the theatre, the waiting area walls were decorated with simple colorful house-shaped paper cut-outs and an usher invited us to touch the different types of paper, as well as the fabric cut-outs of various sizes, colors, and textures that marked a path to the entrance. "This is my favorite," she confided, stroking a soft corduroy. Caleb looked up in shocked recognition, "It's my favorite too! Green is my favorite color!" He had been looking forward to the show since I told him it was about a man and his friend watermelon. He giggled with glee at the absurdity and shouted, "Watermelons can't be friends! Watermelons are food!" Now he was in his element, touching everything, jumping, and even pushing the fabric shapes around the floor with his head. I was worried he wouldn't be able to settle down for the show.
It wasn't a problem. As the audience filed into the intimate performance space, the cheerfully lit small room with brightly colored hand-sewn pillows for seating had a familiarity easily recognizable to the children. They plopped down and snuggled into laps, faces forward, ready to be entertained. There, also seated on the ground, looking right back at us, was Andy Manley, sporting a red fleece pompon hat, and the slightly wary expression of a newcomer to the playground. Once everyone was in, he drew the now recognizable house shape on some cardboard with chalk, said "my house" twice and hung it on the wall. Those were the last spoken words until the end of the performance.
"My House" doesn't have a plot in the standard theatrical sense. Manley explores his cardboard house and the objects in it, rejects and then befriends a watermelon, listens to everything and everyone in the space through a toy stethoscope, and half-an-hour later the show ends. Along the way he interacts with the children in the audience and, like a good board book, chooses simple images and play to introduce ideas like size, color, and texture comparison, as well as spatial concepts like on, in, under, and beside.
In one segment, Manley happily flips through a big picture book, recognizing himself and his house, only to be unnerved by a picture of a pompon hat just like his own—but blue. Oh no! He rummages through his cardboard box house and triumphantly raises a hat. I feel something, and looking down realize my son is shaking his head "no," the hat is too small. He is raptly engaged with the search for a blue hat, and finds it hysterical, as do the other pint-sized audience members, when Manley decides to put the small hat on the watermelon. Claire Halleran's set design and Danny Krass's original compositions and sound design are a wonderful support both to the presentation of the concepts, and the safe, playful atmosphere.
Before and during the performance, the children saw Manley's house as paper and cloth cut-outs, a chalk drawing, a small cardboard model, and a cardboard box large enough for Manley to enter. Manley even imitated the house shape with his face. I think their favorite incarnation came at the end, when he invited them out of their seats and onto the stage to share a fruit snack, put on a pompon hat, and explore and play in his house. I loved that Manley's playing house could be such an easy metaphor for live theater, and that a roomful of toddlers and pre-schoolers had just been invited inside.
The New Victory recommends My House for 18-month to three-year-olds, but two- to four-year-olds may get the most out of it, and older siblings up to age six will probably enjoy it as much as the target audience.