Opposites attract in the friendship of Gerald the Elephant and Piggie. Gerald is the introspective worrier, whereas Piggie is a carefree, happy-go-lucky explorer who is open to new adventures.
They are also the stars in “We Are In A Play!,” a musical based on the award-winning Elephant and Piggie book series by children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems, at Adventure Theatre. In the musical, Elephant and Piggie are on their way to a party given by the Squirrelles.
Willems is a three-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, awarded to the most distinguished American picture book for children, and a six-time Emmy Award recipient for his work on Sesame Street.
“We Are In A Play!” is the opening production of Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC) this season and the first show in the tenure of the children theater’s new artistic director, Chil Kong.
Directing the show is Cara Gabriel, who previously staged another children’s classic – “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” – at Adventure Theatre.
The Willems series is for early readers, and is usually about small adventures, like Elephant and Piggie Get Ice Cream or Go to a Party, said Gabriel. The series is formulaic; there is usually some kind of conflict, then Elephant and Piggie learn to get along better.
“But they love each other, in a funny, energetic way,” said Gabriel.
The books are written in simple language, but are usually hilarious for grownups, too, she added. Willems’ books are tongue-in-cheek, and even older kids, like her daughter, tend to keep reading them.
The reason for the play’s title is that three-quarters of the way through, Elephant and Piggie “realize” there is an audience and that they are in a play.
Adult professional actors comprise the cast. Karen Vincent is Piggie, who, while gearing up for a production of “Guys and Dolls” at Ford’s Theatre, is rehearsing for what will be her fifth show at Adventure Theatre.
“I love it,” Vincent said. “Children’s theater is high-energy and kind of silly.”
This show particularly resonates for her own two children. Though almost in their teen years, she said, they enjoy re-reading Willems’ books.
With a sentence per page and an illustration, the books are “witty and relatable,” with expressions reminiscent of the Muppets, she said. “They teach kids humor and slapstick, which are important. The characters are distinctive and funny.”
For Gabriel, theater for children and theater for adults are not much different, except for the fact that kids are so smart and are the most-honest audiences.
“Kids notice if something’s not truthful,” Gabriel said. “So, actors in children’s theater have to move their bodies in ways familiar to kids and experience emotions more like theirs, which change so quickly.”
Another challenge for adult actors in children’s plays is especially intensified for actors with children still at home who they have just sent off to school. That is, the actors have to operate on a 125% energy level at 10 in the morning when many children’s theater performances take place, said Vincent.
“It’s an hour-long physical and mental workout,” she said. But, like Gabriel, she noted, “the candor of kids’ audiences is great. They keep you on your toes, more than adult audiences. They let you know.”
Willems provided the script and lyrics for the show, while the music is by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Gabriel called the music “not pandering” to kids, but done by real musicians.
Derrick Truby plays Gerald, and Da’Von Moody and Alex De Bard are the Squirrelles.
Several special events and performances coincide with the performance of “We Are In A Play!” which is recommended for all ages.
The musical runs Sept. 20-Oct. 27 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo in historic Glen Echo Park. www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.