Puppets to take the stage in PTC’s ‘Velveteen Rabbit’

Posted Dec. 06, 2010, at 5:47 p.m.

It’s pretty clear that a lot of talented people work at the Penobscot Theatre Company. More talent keeps revealing itself, too. At any given moment, you know there’s a flurry of creative activity backstage.

Case in point: Andrew Frodahl. Those perusing PTC’s programs see his name under the cast and crew list as technical director, a position he has held for five years. What you don’t know is that while Frodahl is a master tech director, he’s also one heck of a puppeteer as well as scriptwriter. If you go to the PTC’s puppetcentric production of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” you’ll see his name on the playbill as the writer of the show, adapted from Margery Williams’ classic children’s story.

Frodahl, 29, grew up in the world of puppetry. For one year during his late teens, he traveled the country, performing original puppet shows at private events and festivals with his two brothers. He’s still a member of Puppeteers of America, though his talents are used now in a more technical setting, rather than performing.

“I think, for me, the appeal of puppetry was that I do love to perform, but I don’t really want to be onstage. In fact, it kind of terrifies me,” said Frodahl. “Puppets fulfill that. And there’s something really interesting and fun about giving life and character to an inanimate object.”

When Frodahl heard that PTC artistic director Scott R.C. Levy was looking for an adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit” to produce as one of two repertory Christmas shows in December 2010 (the other being “Plaid Tidings,” which opened last weekend), he thought he’d take a crack at writing a script. By the end of August, he’d finished a first draft, which Levy looked over and decided was the right fit.

“He can write a play knowing exactly how the puppets should be presented, because he has that background,” said Levy. “He thinks about it in terms of how a puppet works. It really worked beautifully. It’s a very sweet-natured show. It’s lovely.”

Frodahl’s take on “Velveteen” stays true to the original story. A boy is given a stuffed rabbit as a Christmas present, which he throws into the toy closet with other toys. When his favorite toy is lost, he grows to love the rabbit so much that it becomes real to him — and eventually, a magical fairy makes the rabbit truly real. But Frodahl adds a bit of back story to it and a few surprise twists toward the end.

What really sets Frodahl’s “Velveteen” apart from other adaptations, however, is the mixture of puppets and human actors in the show. Ellsworth-based actress Jasmine Ireland plays Vel the Rabbit, wielding a soft, cuddly rabbit hand puppet on loan from Mum Puppets in Philadelphia. Ireland is onstage the whole time, becoming an extension of the puppet. The same goes for John Greenman, who plays the growly-voiced Timothy the wooden lion, also a Mum Puppet loaner, and Tracy Michaud Stutzman, who plays the tin soldier, Frederick.

“I’ve been doing theater for a long time, and this is the first time I’ve had to wear kneepads,” said Greenman. “It’s really a totally different way of thinking about performing. You usually only think about where to put your own body, but here, you really have to think of the puppet first. It has been fascinating.”

Frederick was created locally by southern Maine-based Luna’s Puppets, as was the Skin Horse, portrayed in the show by Adam Cousins as a wise old toy who teaches Vel about love.

Marcie Bramucci, PTC’s managing director, is making her directorial debut with the company for “Velveteen” — but she’s making her personal debut in working with puppets. She, like Frodahl, cites the legendary Jim Henson as an influence.

“What is so wonderful about this show and the way we’ve put it together is that it really was written with all ages in mind,” she said. “It’s very much kid-friendly, but like Jim Henson, there’s an adult sensibility. He knew how to speak to multiple age groups, so it appealed to kids and kept them involved in the show, but it had a kind of subtle humor that adults will get. It’s really beautiful.”

“The Velveteen Rabbit” will be performed at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 8; noon Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 10-11; 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14; 4 p.m. Saturday; Dec. 18 and 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20 at the Bangor Opera House. It also will be performed at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15, at The Grand in Ellsworth. For information and for tickets, visit www.penobscottheatre.org or www.grandonline.org.

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