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Pittsburgh International Children's Theater show uses darkness, light

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 8:55 p.m.
Lightwire Theatre in collaboration with Corbian Visual Arts and Dance present the area premiere of 'The Ugly Duckling & The Tortoise and The Hare.'
Lightwire Theatre in collaboration with Corbian Visual Arts and Dance present the area premiere of 'The Ugly Duckling & The Tortoise and The Hare.'

When the theater falls dark and the giant, illuminated puppets come onto the stage, they will tell two popular children's stories in a compelling way with no dialogue: The movements, the dance, the facial expressions and the characters' interaction with each other communicate the stories to the audience.

In “The Ugly Duckling & The Tortoise and the Hare” — playing on several stages in the greater Pittsburgh area, starting Sunday — the silent, but life-size, puppets mime the two stories, with a background soundtrack of recorded music.

The audience in a pitch-dark theater can see the puppets' glowing skeletal outlines and other markings, lined with electro-luminescent wire. Performers wear and operate the puppets — kind of like Big Bird — to create a show with cool visual effects, tour manager Stephen Nicholson says. The show is a production of the New Orleans-based CORBiAN Visual Arts and Dance's Lightwire Theater.

“Basically, what it looks like is half-cooked spaghetti that glows in the dark,” Nicholson says about the puppets, including the ducklings and the mother duck. “We perform completely in the dark. We, as performers, disappear into the darkness and the characters emerge.”

The show, presented by Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, begins with a 12-minute intro of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” followed by the main story, “The Ugly Duckling, which is about 45 minutes long. The simple play seems mesmerizing to children, says Nicholson, who also plays the mother duck character.

“They get very, very excited about the darkness, and about the way we're telling the story,” he says. The kids “have this kind of release into, one might call it, primordial darkness. Their imagination begins to fill the voids in our costumes. ... There's allowance for the imagination to run wild in the darkness and fill in. Darkness is sort of our biggest asset.”

Although the play has no words, the stories are narrative-driven, Nicholson says, and have powerful messages. The moral of the story is clear: Slow and steady wins the race for the tortoise-hare portion, and appearances can be deceiving for the duckling story. He might seem ugly now, but that's because he's a misplaced swan, not a duck, and he grows up to be beautiful.

“Audience members are leaning forward in their seats, so they want to be drawn into what's happening with these characters,” he says.

“We hope that the children, in particular, will see this character having a difficult time, who's up against feeling left out … but he still has an optimistic nature,” Nicholson says.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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