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The Open Dream Ensemble’s newest theatre piece for young audiences, Peril on the Red Planet, presented at the N.C. Museum of Art, was vivid, lively, often charming and — most important — never condescending to its unfortunately small but very appreciative young audience.
In the words of Open Dream’s General Manager Rebecca Nussbaum, the company “is comprised of eight professional artists trained at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts." Peril, written with a refreshing lack of guile by Mollye Maxner, Shona Simpson, and Brian Sutow, holds some very basic human concerns — communal and environmental — and offers what we now call “life lessons,” and imparts them with a breeziness that puts more earnest, pedantic efforts to shame.
The pitfall of such theatrical endeavors as this lies in the creators’ talking down to their audience, of which the Open Dream Ensemble is never guilty. The company uses a certain amount of gentle repetition to keep the themes and the story fresh in young minds, and the action is full of broad strokes, spirited action, a couple of duels, and moments of slapstick humor. But Peril on the Red Planet is as far from the dread of well-meaning pedagogy as it is from the inanity that so often accompanies the phrase “children’s programming.”
The performance concerns the threat, in 2168, to the first established human community on the planet Mars, and the efforts of 13-year old “assistant scientist” Diana to improve the situation. Naturally enough, the girl unwittingly does the opposite, unleashing a ravenous machine called “ZARTOK” which she and her robot friend Abeona must somehow bring back under control.
Bryn Harris makes a formidable heroine of Diana: intelligent, engaging, resourceful, and clever if a shade too ambitious, and believably adolescent. Julianne Harper’s Abeona is a charmingly spunky asset, both to Diana and to the performance as a whole. Ian Antal and Brandon Harris, both of whom play a number of roles, make their robust appearances as a pair of Martian cops the equivalent of cosmic vaudevillians by way of Wonderland. Peter Shanahan, Haydee Thompson, Jon Odom and Sonny Enseln, also shine in multiple roles, and on various instruments.
Aided by James Stewart’s evocative music and occasional songs, Ren LaDassor’s boldly colorful costumes and the sets, both expressive and functional, of Jennifer O’Kelly, the show’s directors, Joshua Morgan and co-author Brian Sutow, keep a lively pace that yet locates moments for stillness and even a few tears along the way. Throughout, intelligence and bracing imagination are the by-words.
Peril on the Red Planet was my first experience of the Open Dream Ensemble. I hope to encounter it again, and strongly encourage families with young children to do likewise.