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There’s the aquarium in Baltimore, and there’s the show “Aquarium” at Imagination Stage.
The latter is much closer – in Bethesda – and part of the theater’s My First Imagination Stage program, which is geared to very young audiences.
“Aquarium” takes them and accompanying adults into a magical island world, where fish soar through the air, lemons light up the sky and sheep go parading by, said Kathryn Chase Bryer, associate artistic director of Imagination Stage, who helped develop the show some years ago along with the visiting Lyngo Theatre of Italy.
“Aquarium” audiences have special guides, the shipwrecked Jack and Calypso, who use music, puppets and props – more than words – in the interactive production.
Meg Lowey, Imagination Stage’s artistic and casting coordinator, has directed the current remount of the show.
Children’s theater benefits performers as well as audiences, according to Linda Bard, 25, who plays Calypso.
“One of the wonderful things is the honesty of the audiences,” said Bard. “Children don’t hide their reactions, and they can see through all your tricks. They have no filter, which is kind of beautiful.”
Bard is making her Imagination Stage debut but had appeared previously in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” at Adventure Theatre, playing a mischief maker in the title character’s class.
Lyngo was at Imagination Stage to present another production; at the same time, the theater members taught their host their techniques, using “Aquarium” as a model.
Unlike many American children’s productions, Chase Bryer said, “Aquarium” is “more episodic, visual and sensory and less story-based.
“It’s participatory, with a lot of imaginative playing with props, not so much a beginning, middle and end.”
There are also surprises, she said. The actors manipulate puppets, and, in the end, big ones fly through the air over the audience and seem to make water move.
Performing for an age range of 1-5 is trickier than 5-8 because the younger audience contains both pre-verbal and verbal children. But the show is built to be accessible to kids at many levels of development, Chase Bryer said.
Like other My First Imagination Stage programs, “Aquarium” is only 45 minutes long and incorporates comedic moments. “It’s also based on the expectation that children won’t be just sitting, but can move around and go onstage,” said Chase Bryer.
“I had seen productions that had a lot of storytelling, and I realized that wasn’t good enough,” she added. “We had to make something that actively engages kids.”
Lyngo is known, Chase Bryer said, for the European sensibility of its designs of art for art’s sake. The Italian theater didn’t leave Imagination Stage all its sets and props, and certainly not its actors. Instead, the theater developed its own and capitalized on the strengths of performers in different productions.
“Maybe one can juggle or stand on his or her head, and those skills can be added to the parts,” Chase Bryer said.
My First Imagination Stage productions take place in the Reeve Studio Theatre, which seats 50 youngsters and 50 adults.
In one way, achieving the honesty performers in children’s theater are looking for is easier for someone like Bard, if she’s playing a child or young person. “I look young and sound young, and I’m a kid at heart,” she said.
“I’m also pretty short,” Bryer added, laughing.
Playing opposite Bard in “Aquarium” is Noah Israel.
Also continuing at Imagination Stage through March 24 but for older children are “Anatole: Mouse Magnifique” and “Dickens’s Davy Copperfield” in repertory.
“Aquarium” plays March 30-April 14. 4908 Auburn Road, Bethesda. www.imaginationstage.org.