Encore Michigan

Unique one-man show engages young and old alike

Review July 15, 2016 Donald V. Calamia

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Can theater change the world? Maybe, maybe not. But at the very least, a well-conceived and executed production can offer patrons different perspectives and insights they might not otherwise consider, or share stories that enrich our understanding of the people, cultures and world around us.

That’s pretty much the stated goal of Ann Arbor-based Spinning Dot Theatre – whose name refers to the globe on which we live – and its current effort, A Mouth With Flame, certainly connected with the diverse audience of young people and adults who attended the opening performance on a recent Thursday evening.

Designed for ages 7-12 (and their parents, too), A Mouth With Flame is an original, 40-minute multi-media show starring creator Tae Hoon Yoo that uses his life story as an immigrant from South Korea to tell the engaging tale of a young dragon in search of his place in the world. And along the way – whether the youngest folks realize it or not – Yoo presents a brief history lesson of East Asia, World War II and his family’s genealogy that frames his narrative in a way that’s easily understood and that helps explain both the historical and modern-day influences that shape (and shaped) the dragon’s (and Yoo’s) life.

With so much information packed into such a short timeframe, one might assume A Mouth With Flame is a production that moves too quickly, or is one in which sensory overload negates the absorption of the material. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The genius of the production – and I rarely use that word in my reviews – is how Yoo combines the show’s various elements to tell his story. An interactive, animated silhouette, for example, serves to help narrate the story, while additional digital media bring to life the show’s other characters and story elements. And crucial to the success of the production are the several moments of audience participation, which are taught to the audience at the start of the show by an enthusiastic Jennie Anne Koppera, founder and artistic director of Spinning Dot. Rarely in my two-plus decades of producing professional theater for young audiences did I observe an entire audience that was so eager and enthusiastic to play their roles in the show – and that’s especially true of the adults seated throughout the venue, who were equally as vocal and active as their kids. (In fact, it appeared that I was the only one who didn’t participate. My excuse? I was observing and taking notes.)

The show’s major asset, however, is Yoo himself, also known as Big Fire. A seemingly sweet and gentle soul, Yoo’s performance reflects a warm and soft-spoken nature quite similar to that of TV’s Mr. Rogers, which draws his young audience into the story. His delivery is deliberately paced (but never monotonous), his movements are smooth, and his songs are easy to listen to; the result is an environment that encourages his audience to feel safe and free to express themselves – and to have tons of fun doing so.

Spinning Dot performs inside Ann Arbor’s Carriage House Theatre, which is an old barn in the backyard of a home in the middle of a neighborhood in the western portion of the city’s picturesque downtown neighborhood. Built sometime prior to 1905 (at the latest), the facility has been upgraded to include a wooden floor (rather than the original dirt), electricity and a flexible black-box-style performance area. Cracks and crevices along the walls provide the air conditioning, which serviced the audience quite well on what was otherwise a hot evening.

One recommendation, though: Potential attendees may want to brush up on their art skills, as they’ll be asked to draw something on a wall of black paper upon their arrival. And if nothing else, when you leave the performance you’ll know how to make kimchi (or kim chee), a tasty Korean dish.

See? Yoon did pack quite a lot of useful information into this very entertaining and educational production! Seating is limited; catch it before it closes on July 17!

Click here for show days, times and details.