By Brian Hohlfeld (Imaginary Theatre Company)

Dec 22, 1999 at 4:00 am
Any job in children's theater must be a labor of love. One must serve a public notoriously short-fused in the attention-span department (and remember to include Game Boys in the preshow electronic-gizmo admonition). This audience needs an entertaining story that's also fast-moving yet easily comprehensible by a demographic still deep in language acquisition. Successful children's theater invariably has a recognizable ethical compass -- unsuccessful children's theater has a lot of people screaming in high voices. Happily, the touching and tender The Little Fir Tree, presented by the Imaginary Theatre Company, succeeds magnificently in a genre crowded with blockbusting crowd-pleasers wherein the moral of the story is as clear and as exciting as water.

Written and directed by Brian Hohlfeld, who also provides music and lyrics, this bargain-priced one-acter tells the story of the Little Fir Tree (Constance Marie), who lives a lonely life in the middle of a vast field. Her needles are "always green," and her attitude is always optimistic. She can see a forest of pine trees, tall and towering at a distance, but is on her own, save for visits by a talking squirrel and bird (cleverly represented by hand puppets worn by Jana Mesteckey and Alan Knoll). Friendless and alone, Fir Tree endures Bird's brassy, discordant singing and Squirrel's hyperactivity while craving other companionship. Even after Bird tells her that the other trees who have to live in the forest are dreadfully overcrowded and complaining -- "Get your branch out of my eyes; your roots are tangling up in my roots" -- Fir Tree still feels lonely. And then Squirrel and Bird tell her of the evil human beings can do -- chopping down trees for kindling, or tools, or even Christmas trees. Lo and behold, Fir Tree's next visitor is a Man (Alan Knoll). He strides into the clearing whistling "Good King Wenceslaus" and wielding not a chainsaw or an ax but a shovel.

Fir Tree's fate is unusual as far as trees go. Because she's so small -- a fact that makes her extremely self-conscious -- she's going to be temporarily relocated for Christmas. The Man has a very sickly son (Brian Peters) who is bedridden and can't walk. Fir Tree will cheer up his room for Christmas. When the family members arrive, they decorate the tree, who beams with delight. And the Boy feels he's made a real friend -- his first. When Christmas morning arrives, presents have magically appeared beneath the tree. At first Fir Tree is mortified at this unexpected collection -- "I didn't do it, I promise!" she declares.

When Christmas is over, Fir Tree "didn't feel quite so lonely," says Mesteckey, because she was "part of something at last." And Fir Tree agrees. "Once you've been part of something, it's awfully hard to be alone again." Back Fir Tree goes to the forest -- or does she? And what happens when a Little Fir Tree does what all fir trees do and begins to grow and grow and GROW? These issues, and the question of the Boy's fate, are handled in a gentle and amusing manner by playwright Hohlfeld and the cast, whose performances aren't cutesy-poo or detached but perfectly kid-sized. As the Little Fir Tree, Constance Marie gets to wear a memorably elaborate costume in the shape of an evergreen, constructed by costume/scene designer Dorothy Marshall Englis out of hoops, Velcro and green fabric. Marie can release layers of hoops to simulate "growth," and even her conical hat rises on command. Given that her role entails that she be nonmoving (roots, remember?) as well as encased, Marie is deeply beguiling. Her loneliness in the field and her pleasure at having company are thoroughly convincing. As the Boy, Peters does a fine job with a role that's one part Tiny Tim and one part Tom Sawyer -- acting good is sometimes the hardest acting job. And in multiple roles, Jana Mesteckey and Alan Knoll show a range of characterizations that keep the audience laughing or on the edge of their seats.

In the capacious Loretto-Hilton Center, this well-directed acting quartet manages to fill the stage (borrowed from Into the Woods, but they bring their own scenery). There are some really sweet and delightful moments in this show, which moves at a quick pace. The Little Fir Tree has a song she sings and reprises, "Hello Spring," and there's a midshow sing-along of Christmas carols, which everyone who attends will know. The original music is sprightly, and the text will entertain the youngsters without patronizing them, which means parents won't feel pandered to, either.

The Little Fir Tree continues at 11 a.m. Dec. 22 and 23 at the Loretto-Hilton Center. Call 968-4925 for tickets and information.