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Arts & Entertainment

Children's Festival offers laughs for young, old

| Friday, May 17, 2002

Those white caps sprouting in West Park are not rain-induced mushrooms.

They're tents for the Pittsburgh International Children's Festival, an annual event that runs through Sunday in the park and in nearby buildings along Arch Street and around Allegheny Center.

Now in its 17th year, the festival brings national and international puppeteers, dancers, musicians, storytellers and circus performers to town in a five-day extravaganza that ends Sunday. Surrounding the performances are an array of child-centered activities that include the expected face-painting booth, petting zoo and paddle boat rides and an imaginative array of interactive craft projects, sports clinics, science experiments and Karaoke opportunities.

The seven performing companies are chosen primarily to entertain children between ages 4 and 12. But that doesn't exempt adults from having fun as well.

It's impossible to fit more than three events into a single day — and most parents would be best advised not to try to. Kids also need time to force feed the goats, check out the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, shoot marbles or string a bead bracelet to take home.

Unreviewed, but tempting are storytellers Queen Nur and Kala Jojo's "Sweet Potato Pie and Such," the Brazilian dance group Ache Brazil, the New Guinea drum and dance troupe Makoda and children's artist Laurie Berkner.

The following are capsule reviews of the three shows, two from Canada and one from Germany:

"CIRCUS INFERNO"

An audience with preteens and a critic can be a tough house. Preteens are predisposed to dislike on principle anything that an adult has chosen for them. But the trio of performers who form the Daredevil Theatre Company from Canada won them over with their goofy slapstick humor, outrageous and inventive props and playful performances.

Jonah Logan and Amy Gordon appear as a couple of bumbling audience members who have difficulty finding their seats while spilling popcorn from oversize buckets and soaking audience members with their uncontrollable water bottles.

When "Circus Inferno" is cancelled, they take over, getting themselves into increasingly bizarre and hilarious fish-out-of-water difficulties with a flame-belching "Combustible Canine," a pair of spark-shooting jet skates and a shop-vac with a hose that behaves like an anaconda.

This show plays well with the intimacy and immediacy of the Hazlett Theater, where the audience surrounds the stage on three sides. This is the sort of live excitement that TV and movies cannot hope to duplicate.

Before long, the preteens were hanging over the balcony railing eager to see what absurdity the couple will generate next. Sound designer Paul Weir contributes an imaginative abundance of sound and pyrotechnic effects that surprise, amuse and occasionally dazzle the audience.

"SNOW WHITE"

Nearly 180 degrees from the spectacular stunts of "Circus Inferno," but no less enthralling, is Matthias Kuchta's low-key performance of the classic fairy tale "Snow White" by the Lille Kartofler Figurentheater from Germany.

This one-man show starts slowly but builds in fascination as it proceeds.

Kuchta begins by explaining to the children that, as a German, he's less well versed in English and needs their help to supply some of the words for the story. He's clad in black surrounded by his puppet dolls whom he moves, manipulates and speaks for in full view of the audience while narrating the tale.

At intervals, he enlists audience assistants to help move the story along and to interact with his puppets that vary from the three-quarter life-size mannequin Queen to the shorter, lumpier dwarfs and the Lilliputian Show White and Prince.

Kuchta is a charming and gracious storyteller who never condescends to his audience. The action proceeds at a laconic pace that finds my interest flagging. But a look round the room shows that those in the suggested age range of 4- to 8 year-olds are mesmerized.

"FLYING BOB"

Billed as "The loon from Saskatoon," Canadian Bob Palmer's irreverent humor, goofy outrageous stunts and juggling skills make him a hit with a wide variety of ages including those always picky preteens.

He performs with a Robin Williams-esque delivery style and some self-deprecating humor. Early on, he wins the kids over by enlisting a couple of teachers or chaperones to help him out and subjecting them to some less than dignified tomfoolery.

His forte is juggling and balancing while being silly — not nearly as easy as it sounds. An opening number has him lining coins up on his arm then catching them with his hand when they're propelled into the air. He juggles balls by shooting them into the air with his mouth. He changes clothing while balancing on a tightrope and ends up trapped on the high wire.

At the performance I saw, Palmer had some difficulty getting his rhythms right. And one segment was hampered by having a uniquely uncoordinated kid who was supposed to assist him with a juggling trick. But whatever he lacks in coordination or coordinated assistants he makes up for with stage presence and good humor.

The Pittsburgh International Children's Festival continues through Sunday in Allegheny Center and West Park along West Ohio Street, North Side. Festival hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. General admission to activity area without shows: $3 per person. Single show tickets are $5 per person, per show. Family sampler tickets are $12 per person for three shows. Details: (412) 321-5520 or www.pghkids.org .

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