"A Fable" of Discovery

A Wonderfully Flat Thing, created by Manju Shandler and Basmat Hazan with script adaptation by Valerie Work and direction by David Winitsky, is a journey of self-discovery for young children, ages three and up, based on A Fable by Mark Twain. The creators' focus for the production is a simplified interpretation of Twain’s concluding moral: “You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.” The playfulness and clarity of the show’s central notions about self-discovery are clearly communicated and enjoyed by the younger audience members. Twain is struggling to write a tale and decides to take a nap. In his dream, his animal characters come to life. The Cat, performed by Emily Hartford, goes into the forest to report to the other animals that she has discovered a wonderfully flat thing that shows her the most beautiful cat she has ever seen. Donkey, Jake Goodman (who also plays Twain), casts doubt that such a thing could exist. Each animal – Donkey, Snake performed by Sarah Painter, Ostrich by Sarae Garcia, and Elephant by Shawn Shafner – goes to Twain’s room to see for themselves, only to discover a video projected gateway mirror in which each animal sees something different.

Shandler and Hazan use puppetry, dance, video and music to bring their interpretation of the fable to life. The overall set and puppetry design are playful and colorful. The set clearly defines both Twain’s room and the forest, and creates two central flexible spaces. The video, designed by David Tirosh, plays a central role as both the mirror’s reflection and as exaggerated or spectacular versions of each animal self as they look into the mirror. The video is projected on an upstage scrim, which provides an exaggerated view into the mirror, while the downstage area is a flexible space used for dance and traveling from one location to the other.

The puppets are expressive and colorful. They include a string marionette and body puppets. A challenge with the puppets, however, is the manipulation. The actors are clearly and intentionally visible, but the live human actors often draw attention away from the puppet character they are portraying. Despite this, the children in the audience found the puppet characters engaging. The original music by Tamar Muskal compliments the script and provides a thread through the show.

Early in the production, The Cat directly addresses and engages with the children during the performance. The other animal characters continue to include the children throughout the show by asking them questions, for their help, and sitting with them to watch various moments. While this strategy assists the children to remain focused on the story, most are quick to point their way and say that what the animals are looking into is a mirror. They also easily connect the projected image with the mirror. Despite their ready understanding of what is happening on stage, the children are no less delighted by the animals' confusion and their antics on stage, in the video, and in their live double image performed behind the scrim.

The fun of A Wonderfully Flat Thing is its accessible interpretation of Twain’s moral about self-reflection and interpretation, and the delight the audience takes in helping the animal characters along on their journey to self-discovery. This production is an entertaining event for families, particularly with children ages three to seven years.

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