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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories
Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Ironbound and Funny Girl

Serina Dunham, Hermenigildo Tesoro, Jr.,
and Mattea Mazzella

Photo by Glen Stubbe
The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories has arrived at Children's Theatre Company from Hawaii, the work of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth Ensemble. That company draws its work not only from the cultures of Hawaii, but of the entire Pacific basin. Most of the stories in The Carp are Japanese in origin, with one from Okinawa, a region of Japan that has a distinctive culture of its own. They are presented using traditional puppetry, storytelling and music. The show is altogether enchanting, a lovely ode to the art of storytelling in its purest form to appeal to more mature audiences, and a flight of fancy, comical animal and human characters, and playful stage antics to delight the many young audience members.

Over the course of fifty minutes, the company shares six stories, along with an interlude halfway that calls for active audience participation, giving the small fry a chance to abate any restlessness, the better to sit through the remainder of the show. The first story is that of the titular carp who, indeed, does not give up. He is infused with determination to swim up a waterfall, even as his four siblings give up along the way. The carp are depicted by means of elegant hand puppets designed by Eric West, gracefully manipulated by the company members.

There follows a story about a crane who repays the kindness of an old man by returning in the form of a young woman who becomes the daughter the old man and his wife had always wanted. The crane appears as a puppet as well, a particularly beautiful creation. The other stories include two with mice as their main characters, one with rabbits, and one with lion-dogs. The actors don headbands with the appropriate ears to transform into mice and rabbits, while the lion-dogs are created by means of golden-ribboned jackets that surround the actors. There is also a marvelous sea serpent, a puppet that appears to do battle with the lion-dogs.

All of the stories are simple tales, easy to follow but with dramatic turns that delight the audience. Each delivers a moral lesson, such as the value of courage and determination, that it never pays to be greedy, and to believe in yourself to accomplish your dreams. They are accompanied by music performed on three traditional instruments: the stringed koto, considered the "national instrument" of Japan; the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute; and taiko, which actually is a set of Japanese drums, once used to set pace for the military.

The instruments, the puppetry, the narration, and the taking on of characters is done by three performers whose love for their work and for their audience radiates forth. They are Mattea Mazzella, who is also the composer of the original music for the show; Serina Dunham; and Hermenigildo Tesoro, Jr., a veteran of Honolulu Theatre for Youth, in is 28th year with the company. All three perform with embellished expression and movement, delivering their meaning with clarity, efficiency, grace and humor.

Playwright and director Reiko Ho maintains fluidity both in the arc of each story and in the performance by her cast. Iris Kim has designed costumes based on traditional motifs that allow each performer to don a jacket or coat and transform into a different being and a simple set that features a lantern-lit sky and a stylized mountain landscape. Chesley Cannon's lighting enhances the atmosphere while drawing focus to the action underway in each story.

One winning element of the production for me is provided by the audience and not by the talented artists of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. That is the giggling and calling out by young, unspoiled voices, enthralled by what they see and hear, who allow their honest response to float above the audience toward the stage. Ordinarily in a theater, I do not relish audible commentary by my fellow audience members, but in this case, that commentary is an affirmation that the business on stage is working exactly as intended.

This sensitively conceived, imaginatively realized show could serve as a wonderful introduction to live theater for very young children, while older children will continue to be delighted by its storytelling. Adults, meanwhile, will be in thrall of the elegance and authenticity of the presentation. It is a welcome addition to this year's Children's Theatre Company's season.

The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories runs through February 18, 2024, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets, please call 612-874-0400 or visit Bina's Six Apples can be enjoyed by all ages but is especially accessible to very young audiences.

By: Reiko Ho and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth Ensemble; Director: Reiko Ho; Original Music: Mattea Mazzella; Set and Costume Design: Iris Kim; Lighting Design: Chesley Cannon; Puppet and Prop Design: Eric West; Additional Props: Sarah Danvers and Hermenigildo Tesoro, Jr.; Technical Director: Eric West; Production Stage Manager: Jenny R. Friend.

Cast: Serina Dunham, Mattea Mazzella, Hermenigildo Tesoro, Jr.