Oodles of excited, chatty children are packed into a boxy playhouse, and there’s a collective sigh of relief from every parent in the room when, right before curtain time, an Oz-like voice declares that theatergoers not only can, but should participate in Corduroy.
At DCPA’s Theatre for Young Audiences, noise is permitted, laughter is expected, and it’s totally fine for viewers to interact with any of the four local actors portraying the characters from Don Freeman’s classic children’s book, as adapted by Barry Kornhauser. The only rule involves keeping the aisles somewhat clear—because actors will use them.
Tossing out the stifling rules surrounding adult theater etiquette gives way to one of the most entertaining performances I’ve seen this year.
Corduroy is the heartfelt story of a teddy bear’s search for his lost button. While I’ve always loved the story, I questioned whether a short picture book could carry an hourlong play.
Corduroy succeeds by introducing an intriguing new story line: In addition to following Corduroy’s hilarious overnight journey through a department store, the play also develops the backstory of Lisa (Kristina Fountaine), the girl who wants to buy Corduroy.
While I doubt many of children in our audience understood Lisa’s shaky financial circumstances, there were valuable messages, nonetheless, about chores, work effort, and parenthood, that everyone seemed to connect with. Neither children nor parents are perfect, and seeing this adage acted out was comforting and heartwarming.
And then there was the slapstick humor. Corduroy, played by Jake Mendes, had the entire crowd in stitches as he attempted seemingly mundane tasks, like riding an escalator and opening a trashcan—and rappelling to a lower level of the department store with toilet paper. The night watchwoman (Jessica Robblee), with her frazzled appearance and tape-recorded notes, was another point of pure comedic joy, as was Kristen Adele, who played Lisa’s mother, and knew exactly how to deliver a punch line.
Capturing the timeless, age-appropriate simplicity of Mr. Rogers, the production value is on the low end, but in the best way possible. Young children don’t need over-the-top sets and frenzied effects. In fact, ostentatious theatrical elements would only detract from a great story delivered by good actors.
Spoiler alert: There’s a poignant moment at the end that nearly moved my six-year-old to tears. As a parent, I’ll admit that my favorite thing about Corduroy was watching my son enjoy the play. Listening to the silly, ongoing commentary from other theatergoers wasn’t half bad either.
Need to Know: Running through December 16, Corduroy is designed for children in preschool through third grade and their families. The performance takes place in the Conservatory Theatre, on the third floor of the Robert and Judy Newman Education Building, which is the red brick building across the street from the main performing arts complex. Public performances are offered on weekends, at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., and on select weekdays (10 a.m. and noon). Tickets range from $10 to $15; purchase them online.