News Column

Green puppets: Muhlenberg premieres show with environmental message

June 15, 2014

By Kathy Lauer-Williams, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)



June 15--"Gruff!" is not a typical fairy tale.

Loosely based on the fable "Three Billy Goats Gruff," the new work feature goats and trolls, but then adds an environmental message.

And then creators mix in Muppet-like puppets, wacky improvisation, original music and a little bit of magic.

"It is truly unique work," says Charles Richter, artistic director of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. "This will be something completely different for children in the Lehigh Valley."

"Gruff!" is Muhlenberg's summer theater children's show. It premieres Wednesday and runs through July 26.

The show is performed by Doppelskope, a New York City theater made up of Christopher Sheer, a 2007 graduate of Muhlenberg College, and Brooklyn artist Ora Fruchter.

"We met through a clown class," Sheer says. "I was doing clowning and magic and Ora was doing puppets and directing."

Both had improvisation backgrounds and bonded over a shared love of puppetry.

They started creating short performance pieces, which they termed "absurd neo-vaudeville theater."

The name Doppelskope is a combination of doppelganger and telescope, after the concept that if you could use a telescope to see around the world you'd see yourself.

Their first full-length piece, "The Existential Sing-Along," involved the two performers, red clown noses, a kangaroo puppet and a group chant. It was a hit in small performance spaces in New York.

"It is like a children's birthday party for adults," Fruchter says. "That started us on a path of making silly shows about serious topics and inviting the audience to participate."

Last fall, they presented a show at Muhlenberg. Richter says he commissioned the family show "Gruff!" on the spot.

The duo decided to use the framework of the traditional Norwegian fairy tale "Three Billy Goats Gruff."

In "Gruff!" a young goat named Gruff lives in a garbage-filled junkyard with the other goats until she ventures off one day. Gruff, played by an actress and not puppets, discovers a bridge guarded by a troll that leads to an unspoiled natural world.

"There are not clowns with red noses," Sheer says. "But the goats, in their relationship with the audience, are pure clown."

The show features original folk-pop music. The songs include "What's Ours is Yours," "Game of the World," "Nothing Can Stop Us" and "Trip, Trop, Trio." The performers recently made an original cast recording, which will be available for sale at the shows.

"Gruff!" is the largest undertaking by Doppelskope. It features eight performers, including Sheer.

"All our previous shows were just the two of us," Sheer says. "It is exciting not just to grow in scale but to share our techniques with our cast and see other people doing these things."

The performers bring to life a cast of six goats, represented by actors wearing goat ears, and 14 puppets that portray trolls and assorted woodland creatures.

The entire show is interactive and starts out with characters addressing the audience. "The whole show is a conversation with the audience," Sheer says.

Kids also are invited to dance, help make sound effects and give advice to the characters when they have to make decisions.

"We believe we have choices to make," Fruchter says. "People have made the world and we can change it. This is something we care about. We hope we will inspire conversations after the show."

Sheer says the show was created with children and adults in mind, and has different layers.

"The youngest will appreciate the slapstick humor and fuzzy puppets, while older people will enjoy the wordplay and Monty Python-esque humor," Sheer says.

It is appropriate for ages 4 and up.

The production features an environmentally friendly set that uses materials from previous sets, water-based paints and sustainably sourced lumber. The set is made of pallets, fencing and even parts of sofas, which serve as rocks.

"This is very exciting," Fruchter says, noting she hopes to tour the show. "We want this show to have life."

A sensory friendly performance of "Gruff!" will be presented 1 p.m.June 28. It will feature lighting and sound design conducive for children with autism and other sensory-processing difficulties. The performance will include a cast meet-and-greet and orientation before the performance, an open house and available sensory stories in advance of the performance and facilities available for children who need time away from the performance. Tickets for the sensory-friendly performance are $5. For reservations and info: Jess Bien at 484-664-3087.

The cast also will take "Gruff!" to the Lehigh Valley ZooJune 29. The cast will present scenes from the show 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Zoo's Peacock Pavilion.

kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

New children's show 'Gruff!'

-- What: Premiere of puppet-filled show by theater group Doppelskope.

-- When: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. Saturdays. Runs June 18 to July 26.

-- Where: Muhlenberg College, black box Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion, 2400 Chew St., Allentown

-- How much: $10, June shows; $12, July shows.

-- Info: 484-664-3693, http://www.muhlenberg.edu/SMT

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(c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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