Beauty where it counts

The Toad Prince
Winningstad Theatre
1111 S.W. Broadway
Now through March 11
Fridays 7:30 pm, Saturdays 10:30 am, Sundays 2 & 4 pm.
$13 Adults/$9 Children.
Box Office:(360) 695-0477 or (503) 248-0557

It takes more than carved wood, splashes of paint, and stuffed body parts to create a puppet; it takes magic. Until the puppeteer touches the controlling poles, these symbolic characters are lifeless. Their supernatural hands deftly weave a living thing as skillfully as a spider spins a web. First a groggy twitch. Next the head lulls upright. The puppet yawns and looks around, seemingly surprised to be the spectacle of such a large audience. Welcome to “The Toad Prince.”

Kids squealed and parents scolded as the lights of the Winningstad Theater dimmed. All ages fell quickly under the spell of Indri, the Toad Prince trapped in a face too hideous to gaze upon. The play built an intoxicating story around the selfish headman, his simple servant, a beautiful daughter, and the toad. The tale also delivered a clear message; “A person who knows the virtue of putting someone else’s happiness first will never be ugly or alone.” Indri faced this challenge when he fell in love with Yau Nana, the virtuous daughter.

The Winningstad Theater was the perfect ambient environment for this Chinese puppet version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Dim globes cast a red glow on a network of bamboo-like poles supporting the upper levels. The crowd was a mix of all ages. Kids bounced in their seats with joy scrawled on their faces while their parents conversed respectfully from the adult realm four feet above. The distinctly Asian music, composed by Allen Gates, amplified the story expertly with one instrument representing each character.

Reg Bradley, co-founder of Tears of Joy Theater, originally adapted “The Toad Prince” in 1978. He used Dorothy’s Hoge’s book, “The Black Heart Of Indri,” which in turn was based on Chinese stories published in the 1890s. The current production is directed by Emily Alexander and performed by Joseph Bryan and Jason Ropp.

Tears of Joy Theater has set out to bring the best in puppet theater to audiences in the United States and abroad. The Citation of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry, American puppetry’s highest award, has been earned by three of their productions. The touring teams, based in the Vancouver and Portland area, perform for 250,000 children each year. Nancy Aldrich, the artistic director, has a lot to be proud of.

Halfway through the production, Indri is angered by the townspeople and decrees that no one will ever drink from his stream again. To secure this, he conjures a dragon to protect the water of life. The stage grew red as ominous music singled the arrival of a Chinese icon. In the theater, the kids crouched and sought out the safety of their parents’ laps. First a glimpse of the head, then a scaly tail twisting away, and finally the huge dragon puppet surfaced and bellowed fire with a terrific roar. Even the parents squealed with delight this time.

After the show was over, the puppeteers met the audience outside the Winningstad. They were mobbed by the ecstatic kids as if rock-stars. Most of the questions were directed towards the puppets on display. “The dragon breathes CO2 gas as fire,” Joseph Bryan explained. “It’s the same stuff we breathe.” They went on to explain that between the two of them they provided the five voices. It took one month of practice to perfect the play, which tours as far as northern Idaho and California.

Puppeteers of America, where anybody can apprentice, is how Jason Ropp got started. “Jim Henson is the most famous,” he said enthusiastically, “but there is so much talent. The puppet seen in the movie ‘Being John Malcovich’ has over 60 strings!” Indri the Toad Prince may not have strings, but the puppet oozes talent when it is onstage.

Tears of Joy Theater has brought more than entertainment to the Winningstad Theater; they have created life. After a few minutes of “The Toad Prince,” the puppets aren’t being controlled by a hidden genius below stage, they have become real characters with dreams and desires just like our own.