April 25, 2018
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Blueberries and bunnies come alive in Bangor playwright’s imagination

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

You might think that having a child would change the way Andrew Frodahl approached his playwriting, which has mostly been for children. But while his son, the now 15-month-old Axel, has had a profound impact on his daily life, he doesn’t feel it’s affected his work all that much. Even as he wrote his latest children’s play, “The Blueberry Balladeer,” which premieres this weekend at the Penobscot Theatre, and revised his adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which will be performed this weekend at Ellsworth High School and next weekend at the New York Children’s Theatre Festival.

“There’s a big kid inside me. I don’t think that’s changed at all. If anything, [Axel has] only reinforced the way I’ve always been,” said Frodahl, 31, a native of Mattawamkeag. “I’m just a big kid they allow to drive, and that really informs everything I write. If you can write for someone that’s five, you can write for someone that’s 50.”

It has been an incredibly busy 2012 for Frodahl, who found out in January that his puppetry-laden adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which premiered at Penobscot Theatre in December 2010, had been accepted into the inaugural New York Children’s Theater Festival, which began on April 20 and runs through May 5 at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA in New York City. It was one of three original shows chosen from hundreds of entries by a panel that included such luminaries as “Sesame Street” executive producer and Elmo voice actor Kevin Clash, Tony and Emmy awards nominee John Tartaglia, Disney Imagineer Michael Jung and Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation.

“I look at the list of people that are involved in this festival, and I’m still blown away that they chose us out of all these hundreds of other plays,” said Frodahl. “We’re the only show that uses puppets, and we’re also the only play that’s not coming out of New York City. It’s humbling. It still doesn’t feel real. It’ll feel real when we actually perform there.”

Frodahl revised the “Velveteen” that Bangor audiences saw during the 2010 holiday season at Penobscot Theatre; he also commissioned brand-new, much larger and more complex puppets, built by John Farrell of Figures Of Speech Theatre in Freeport. This version is directed by Jasmine Ireland, PTC’s director of education and outreach, who also plays the role of Vel, the rabbit. Other performers traveling to New York include Bangor area actors Allen Adams, Katie Toole, Adam Cousins and Ryan Jackson, as well as 10-year-old Jonah Roberts — the only child actor in the entire festival.

While all the excitement was swirling around “Velveteen,” however, Frodahl was also readying his other play, “The Blueberry Balladeer,” for its world premiere this week at Penobscot Theatre. Where “Velveteen” is an adaptation of Margery Williams’ classic story, “Blueberry” is an entirely original story dreamed up last year by Frodahl. It’s a sweet, imaginative fairy tale about farmers, magic, Maine and, of course, blueberries.

“On my father’s side there are blueberry farmers in Washington County, and growing up my mother loved to pick berries of all kinds. That was part of the inspiration for me,” said Frodahl. “It’s about Maine, it’s about farms. It’s about life Down East and how we should really value it and preserve it.”

The story goes that the Blueberry Balladeer visits the farmers in Washington County every year, and she sings a lullaby to put all the berry blights and pests to sleep until it’s harvest time. But one year, an ancient pestilence known as the Willisoggle wakes up and gives the Balladeer a cold, so she can’t sing. The farmers, the families and an assortment of characters — from a beauty queen to a beekeeper to a pair of Bavarian gnomes — have to band together to figure out how to defeat the Willisoggle.

Though Frodahl wrote “Balladeer” to be performed with a cast as small as eight adults, it will be performed by 27 young actors ages 4 to 12 that are involved in Penobscot Theatre’s Dramatic Academy.

“The kids have been really incredible, and have worked so hard,” said Frodahl. “They understand that this is something that’s a little more special and unique than other shows, and they’ve totally stepped up to the challenge.”

Frodahl counts among his influences people such as Jerry Juhl, one of the original writers for The Muppets, and classic literature such as “Robinson Crusoe” and “Alice in Wonderland,” as well as classic comedy from the early days of film and television, such as Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.

“All that stuff is eternal. It’s accessible to anyone, whether they know who those people are or not,” said Frodahl. “I will say, though, kids are a tough audience. They tell it like it is. If they love it, they’ll freak out; if they think it sucks, they are definitely not afraid to tell you. I always listen to what they have to say.”

“The Blueberry Balladeer” will be performed at 6 p.m. April 26-28 and 2 p.m. April 29 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are $10. There’s also a special “Blueberry Brunch” set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Columbia Street Baptist Church. “The Velveteen Rabbit” will be performed at noon April 28 at Ellsworth High School Auditorium; admission is $10 for adults, children $5. It will also be performed at 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 4, and 11 and 2 p.m. Saturday, May 5, as part of the New York Children’s Theatre Festival in New York City.

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