Encore Michigan

Spinning Dot pushes the envelope on what children’s theatre can be with ‘The Ogreling’

Review August 19, 2017 Kym Reinstadler

YPSILANTI, Mich.–Spinning Dot Theatre Company’s The Ogreling is a show for young people about an ogre, but similarities to DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek” franchise end there.

Instead of towering green ogre with a Scottish burr who relishes the solitude of his swamp, The Ogreling gives us six-year-old Simon, a half ogre, who’s eager to venture from his secluded home in a forest glen, attend school, and make friends.

Unlike Shrek, Simon has a good vs. evil struggle on his hands – and the lives of others hang in the balance.

Ogres have a thirst for blood and gory appetites, after all. Simon battles to subdue the dark side of his nature, including his base instincts.

Simon’s human mother, who loves him ferociously, endeavors to protect him by feeding him only home-grown vegetables and preventing anything the color red from their home. As Simon exercises his autonomy, she realizes she cannot alter his fate. She can only hope Simon will be more successful than his estranged father in overcoming the savage urge to kill and eat.

There is no Disney treatment in this hour-long show. With “The Ogreling,” expect the Brothers Grimm.

In true fairytale fashion, Simon must survive a grueling three-part test that will determine whether he will live the rest of his life as man or beast.

Let me know if you think he passes the test.

This show takes place in space that’s barely lit. There’s a single candle, an occasional luminary, and hand-held mobile phones. Cell phones even provide the only light for shadow puppets, which are very well done.

The effect is unsettling. Ominous. Creepy.

Original music by Emily Slomovits and Tae Hoon Yoo escalates the fright factor.

I’m still shivering.

Spinning Dot is considering reprising this show – which has a brief, four-performance run at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti – in an outdoor venue in October or November.

I think middle school and high school students would love that. Adults, too.

Directors Jenny Anne Koppera and Tyler Calhoun are promoting the show as appropriate for audiences 13 years and over. There were a couple of pre-teens who don’t scare easy in the opening night crowd of 35 assembled in Riverside’s dance studio. There are benches as well as on-floor seating with cushions.

Audiences file out of the dance studio into a companion art installation that’s also eerie under dim light.

The ensemble cast is brilliant, top to bottom. Nine months of preparation are evident in their tight, polished performances.

Dual-cast in the role of Simon, the Ogreling, are Matthew Webb and Jedi Curva. Emily Levickas is convincing as the agonizing mother. Agile “storytellers” who create the shadow puppets and perform the roles of wolves, trees and weather are Vicki Morgan, Tyler Calhoun, Webb or Curva (whomever is not in the starring role).

Spinning Dot’s show marks the first time that French-Canadian playwright Suzanne Lebeau’s “The Ogreling” has been performed in the United States. The play premiered in France in 1997, and has been performed more than 400 times since in French, English, Spanish and Italian.

Plays from other countries for young audiences are Spinning Dot’s niche.

Koppera said many other cultures define youth theatre as plays written for people age 25 and younger. In contrast, the U.S. has Children’s Theatre, which are plays that appeal to kids 12 and under.

The Ogreling appeals to an underserved group of theatergoers, 13- to 25-year-olds. It is an audience that Koppera describes as capable of comprehending deep themes, yet “maybe don’t like seeing the type of show their parents want them to see.”

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Week of 3/20/2023

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