The setup: Great Arizona Puppet Theater, an outstanding cultural resource since 1983, is currently presenting a revival of one of its most popular original shows, The Princess, the Unicorn, and the Smelly Foot Troll. (Preschool audiences age out of shows within a few years, while another mini-generation has reached toddlerhood to fill in for them.)
See also: Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Two Bad Mice Becomes Rowdy Puppet Show for Kids Great Arizona Puppet Theater Gets Those Cabritas Across the River in The Three Billy Goats Gruff Curtains: Great Arizona Puppets' Peter Pan III: The Night of Nights
Older siblings have returned to school, and field trips are not in full swing yet, so GAPT's weekday performances on Wednesday through Friday mornings are a little low-key right now, which can be perfect for very young children and sleepy journalists. Or you can bring a bigger, friskier group (or even arrange a birthday party) on Saturdays and Sundays.
The execution: Young audiences are remarkable and inspiring for a number of reasons, but what I really noticed at Princess was their fierce concentration. (Children's spontaneity and lack of boundaries let performers know right away whether they're succeeding.)
The little girl next to me was riveted, mostly in quiet yet near-hysterical bliss. There are times you're supposed to respond to puppets when they ask you things, but she was way ahead of the game. When Troll and the rest of us heard the tinkling bell of Popsicle the unicorn -- offstage, in the distance, as it were -- and Troll said something like, "Someone's coming. I wonder who it is," my neighbor shouted, "It's Popsicle!" Frankly, anyone who wants to light a fire under the exposition is okay in my book.
Despite all the fairy-tale frou-frou and sparkliness, the boys in the house seemed to like the show as well. There is, after all, a character named Smelly Foot Troll. Also, when Princess Harriet places her birthday party invitations in Popsicle's mail pouch, she reads the guests' names out loud, and apparently several of the princes and princesses who were invited were sitting in the audience! "How do they know our names?" one of the boys asked in shock. (Princess Curtains was not invited, but hey, that's all right. I needed to go buy wine anyway.)
The medium-size rod marionettes are sculpted from foam, covered with papier-mâché, and beautifully painted and costumed. They look like old-fashioned carved-wood puppets.
Lisa Pirro's painted backdrops are simply gorgeous, like book illustrations, and despite being maybe 3 by 5 feet tops, establish the settings in the short play very well. The script is mostly about being thoughtful and kind to your friends, but it's also funny and charming, with wiggling butts, original songs, and those moments of contemplative, self-conscious puppet dialogue that I've always found appealing at GAPT.
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The verdict: This show is a great intro to GAPT for new patrons of all ages. Yes, the box office is in the gift shop, but the gift shop is also in a fabulous mini-museum of puppetry (including dioramas of GAPT shows I've seen before, which are just as super-cool and even more detailed up close than they were from a distance).
Speaking of learning things against our will, be sure to stick around after the show when puppeteer Gwen Bonar shows us how the puppets work. How one person can get all that action going (along with a thousand voices. Okay, four voices in this particular one) amazes me. Every. Single. Time.
The Princess, the Unicorn, and the Smelly Foot Troll continues through Sunday, September 8, at 302 West Latham Street. Tickets are $7 and $10, and admission's free for a child younger than 2 who accompanies an older child. Call 602-262-2050 to make a reservation. You should also subscribe to the e-newsletter, because a puppet-making workshop for kids is on deck.