The Frog King will delight the wee ones

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By Matthias Kuchta. A Matthias Kuchta production, as part of the Vancouver International Children’s Festival. At Performance Works on Tuesday, May 27. Continues until June 1

Puppeteer Matthias Kuchta plays well with others—very, very well.

At the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, the German artist is telling his version of the Grimm’s fairy tale about the frog that turns into a prince. When the Princess loses her golden ball down a well, the frog agrees to retrieve it—on the condition that, afterward, the Princess will kiss him and allow him to sleep in her bed. Once she has the ball back in her hands, the Princess tries to renege on the deal, but as the story’s refrain makes clear, “A promise is a promise that must be kept.”

This is a participatory show and Kuchta knows exactly how to dial in to the playful frequency of his three- to seven-year-old core audience. Maybe because kids get wired early on by their experience of birthdays, they love it when things get unwrapped or revealed on-stage: Kuchta starts his show by drawing the Princess’s string of pearls out of her purse—and he’s immediately got everybody hooked. Then he proceeds to take the hoods off of his puppet cast. Large, soft-fabric creations, the puppets are beautiful objects—especially the zaftig, sweets-loving Queen.

Kids love a little mayhem, so it goes down gangbusters when Kuchta tosses the frog roughly into the well. They love to prove themselves superior to mayhem, so they think it’s hilarious when the Princess throws a tantrum. And they love to be right, so when the frog comes knocking at the palace door and Kuchta insists that it can’t be the frog, the theatre is filled with delighted voices screaming, “Yes it is!”

Lots of kids get invited on-stage, and for adults in the audience, there’s huge joy to be had in how sweet they are. At the show I attended, Kuchta was talking to six-year-old Noah about the Princess’s refusal to listen to her parents. “You always want to listen, don’t you?” Kuchta asked. Noah responded with raised eyebrows and a sly grin at his mom that were worthy of Jack Benny.

The material itself is a little creepy: the frog is a slimy creature that’s trying to get into a little girl’s bed, and if she doesn’t want him there, she should have the right to say no. Interestingly, most of the kids in the audience didn’t much want the frog in the Princess’s bed either—deal or no deal. And Kuchta lets the penultimate passage, in which he sets up the Princess’s bedroom, go on too long.

But the most serious problem at the performance I attended was that many of the parents in the audience let their kids run around like off-leash dogs. Kuchta stayed generous, firm, and cool. But, seriously folks, I’ve had enough godchildren to know that toddlers aren’t that hard to control: you’re bigger than they are; pick them up and hold on to them.

I’m not knocking the kids’ enthusiasm, which is a testament to Kuchta’s charm. I heard one little guy, whose mother did restrain him, pleading earnestly, “I just want to talk to him.” It was like Jesus was right there. Or Santa.

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