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Swedish sweethart: Sedvall as the fiesty Pippi Longstocking.

Duck!

By James Yeara

Letters From a Window in the Sky: A Tribute to Astrid Lindgren and Pippi

By Mary Jane Hansen, music by Will Severin, directed by Tereza Andersson

New york state theater institute and Teater Vastmanland, James L. Meader Little Theatre, Russell Sage College, through June 20

The premiere of Mary Jane Hansen’s Letters From a Window in the Sky: A Tribute to Astrid Lindgren and Pippi is unmistakably a NYSTI children’s-theater production: It’s 78 minutes long; there are several short, original, sing-along songs featuring lyrics like “Oh yes, oh/A hundred years ago/A 100 years is/A very long time/A hundred years ago” that are taught preshow by longtime NYSTI stalwart Joel Aroeste. The original songs have a prerecorded electronic kiddy-pop-rock soundtrack; the sets are rainbow-bright colors that look like a playground mated with a library, with a curved ladder running upstage; downstage are wooden blocks and shelves. The two-person cast, Cicilia Sedvall and David Bunce, create several caricatures by flying a stuffed duck across a pulley above the stage or wearing different bright costumes from a colorful box upstage right, including a red wig and removable pigtails worn by Cicilia when she pretends to be Pippi Longstocking (NYSTI is becoming renowned for its wig acting).

Letters From a Window in the Sky has the brevity, energy, and single-minded focus of a large children’s birthday party; I kept having flashbacks of taking my daughters to Chuck E. Cheese’s. While the message of the play isn’t eat more pizza and spend more money, its laudable theme—“It doesn’t matter how you read, so long as you read”—is repeated through the dozen smaller themes so clearly and earnestly and simply that it could have been produced by the Church of Latter Day Saints.

This new play starts with Cicilia (Sedvall) hanging upside down, reading at the top of the curved rainbow ladder. Cicilia tells the audience that it may look like a funny way to read or eat a banana—she had a banana in her shorts and, from the frequently beamed smile, she was happy to see us. She soon chucks the banana off-left; the book she keeps, telling us that Astrid Lindgren, the creator of the Pippi Longstocking children’s books, said, “It doesn’t matter how you read, so long as you read.” With her blue-and-white-striped shorts and top, red wig, and black dots for freckles, Cicilia takes the mostly very still audience on a tour of a rainy afternoon in July when a depressed Cicilia rediscovered the Pippi Longstocking series, beginning an adventure that begins by stepping barefoot in “duck poop”—“ewwhhhh!” As the adventure unfolds, she rescues a little white duck from six duck bullies—“yea!”—and discovers that Mr. Magnus Nilsson (David Bunce, who learned that if he doesn’t turn off the microphone in the light booth, kids figure out where the voice of Mr. Nilsson comes from) talks and moves.

They find pirate gold, pirates, and animals abused in a circus. They sing some short songs, and all is good, clean fun, except for the duck poop. Sedvall’s Cicilia gets to try on different costumes and voices as she encounters different characters, and there are several moments when she asks for volunteers but doesn’t take any. Once I’d like a play for children to actually make good on using children performers, and take the mad leap of faith that audiences always have to make but actors, directors, and producers seldom do: Trust the magic of theater, and audience volunteers onstage will take you places that you never imagined. Until then, Letters From a Window in the Sky makes for a nice 78-minute introduction to Astrid Lindgren’s books.

 


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