The Puppet Co. offers performances for different age groups. Its 30-minute Tiny Tots shows are generally targeted for kids 2-4, but what happens when children are in the upper part of that range and ready for something longer and more sophisticated?
One answer is a transitional show like “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” which is 40 minutes long. The show offers a way for the children who have been attending Tiny Tots shows to move comfortably into the Mainstage shows, said Allen Stevens, co-founder and CEO of The Puppet Co.
“Gruff” is intended for youngsters 3 1/2 to 9, and, like all Puppet Co. shows, brings its own take on classic and other tales.
The show uses marionettes, which in this case are given movement and voice entirely by Christopher Piper, the puppet theater’s co-founder and artistic director. The goats are in search of a place where the grass is literally greener, but a troll has other ideas.
“Three Billy Goats Gruff” is preceded by three variety numbers. Piper also begins by demonstrating the making of a simple hand puppet and manipulating rod puppets and marionettes as an introduction to the art of puppetry.
The hand puppet, a comical creation named Maradel, is given life right in front of the audience members with a handkerchief as her only costume. Throughout the entire process, Piper talks to Maradel and she talks back.
“We give a demonstration before each performance,” said Stevens.
Then there is the troll, trying to keep the goats from climbing his mountain and looking for a good meal himself.
In the Puppet Co. production, the troll is less scary than one might expect.
“He’s not too bright. A buffoon, not menacing,” said Stevens. “The children do not feel in any danger.”
What is more, he is henpecked. Piper voices the wife from offstage, telling the troll what to do; she is never seen.
“The story is so clear and straightforward; there’s a lot of repetition,” said Piper. “There is also a lot of audience participation.”
A unique part of the production, Stevens said, is the revolving set, which switches from a cold mountain to a grassy green knoll.
Because “Three Billy Goats Gruff” is less familiar to some audience members than such fairy tales as “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” they often think it is newer. “But actually,” said Piper, “it is older, a Norwegian fairy tale.”
Often, he has other puppeteers on stage with him (or sometimes offstage) in some shows. This time he has the floor to himself, playing all the parts.
Some puppetry festivals like to include a whole day of solo performances, which usually ends up being the height of the festival, Piper pointed out.
The present “Three Billy Goats Gruff” has a tradition of its own. It was written 50 years ago by Leonard and Pat Piper, Christopher’s parents. “We still have the original set archived,” Stevens said.
The Pipers Sr. were popular puppeteers in Hawaii, often giving shows in schools, where the family spent some time.
One disadvantage of living in the beautiful state, Piper said laughing, was that the weather was too nice – people didn’t want to stay indoors to watch shows. “Also,” he said, “we only had the population of the island — a finite audience. Here we can draw on a much larger population.”
But the joy of the art is the same everywhere: puppeteers get to write the show, design sets and costumes and perform, among other tasks. In other words, to be a Jack – or Jill – of all trades.
“The Three Billy Goats Gruff” production received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The show runs Aug. 8-Sept 1, at Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo. www.thepuppetco.org.