Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Silent movies come to life on stage

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The Little Fellow (Dean Holt) leaps off the screen and onto the stage in the world premiere of Reeling at The Children's Theatre Company. (Image courtesy of Childrens' Theatre Company)
Before there was sound in movies, people like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were the stars of the silent screen comedy. They created films so filled with physical antics that they didn't need words to tell a story. But with the advent of the soundtrack, silent movies faded to black. Now the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis has brought the gags, humor and fun of silent movies to the stage. "Reeling" pays homage to the films of Buster Keaton, while taking his performance style to a whole new level.

St. Paul, Minn. — A young man is lying in bed. He wakes up, gets dressed, brushes his teeth, and polishes shoes. Then, still half-asleep, he brushes his shoes and polishes his teeth. Hundreds of elementary school kids watch his every move, and they're loving it.

The show, "Reeling", at the Childrens' Theater Company draws on the many classic elements of silent movies of the 1920s. There's the young hero, his one true love, and a bad guy. There are lots of misunderstandings, mishaps, and physical humor... plus a bunch of keystone cops and wild chases thrown in for fun. And while the characters don't talk, this is not a quiet play - there are loud sound effects, music, and lots of laughter.

So why would a theater company try to produce a silent movie on stage? Childrens' Theater Director Peter Brosius says much of 1920s cinema was high-quality, imaginative work filled with improvisation and great physical risk. But Brosius says his purpose is not to send families out to the silent movie section of the video store.

"If this makes a parent or teacher say 'hey, there's Harold Lloyd, there's Buster Keaton, there's Charlie Chaplin' - terrific," says Brosius. "But I think it just stands on its own as the story a little guy going to the big city and making a mess of things!"

"Reeling" has something going for it that Buster Keaton's movies never did -- it's three dimensional. Often the characters run through the audience, enlisting the help of kids or eating some of their popcorn. And when the hero is swinging around on a ladder, it's not on a movie screen; it's live, and the risks are for real. Dean Holt plays the role of "the little fella," the Buster Keaton character of the show. Holt is doing what Buster Keaton never did; he's performing all the physical gags in just one take. And his body pays the price. Just last weekend Holt took a fall that bruised his tailbone.

"I somehow just came down wrong," says Holt. "I mean I have this wonderful padding that the costume shop provided me with. I have these pants that are made for snowboarders that protect everything. Apparently there was one little space it didn't cover and I just managed to hit a bone the wrong way. I mean compared to Buster Keaton who broke everything I'm still in pretty good shape."

Indeed he is. A St Paul Pioneer Press review said "Holt makes all the crashing around look effortless, human and even a little poignant in a virtuoso performance." Holt got into theater in college. He says until this production, he wasn't really that familiar with Buster Keaton's work.

"I started taking videos home and dvds and watching more and more and I don't know how you can watch and not become a fan. I quickly became a fan and then when my son Henry was born we actually named him... his middle name is Keaton. So there's a whole love story that developed there and we had to put it into our own lives too."

Barry Kornhauser wrote the script for Reeling. It's basically just a long series of stage directions for the actors, interspersed with a few captions that are projected above the stage. Kornhauser has written lots of theater for kids, but he's never written a play without dialogue, and he says he appreciated the challenge.

"Sometimes language presents a real barrier," says Kornhauser. "And of course there are kids for who English is not their first language or a language they don't have at all, and there are kids who are deaf. So it's a great way to exercise lots of writing muscles not to actually write with words."

Even without words, Reeling is meant to convey a message. Childrens' Theatre Director Peter Brosius says it teaches the rewards of persistence.

"Yes, buildings will fall. Yes, 50 cops will chase you. Yes, the world will come at you. But you can just keep going. And I thought what a great thing for kids to know that no matter what befalls you - and things will befall you - you can keep putting one foot in front of the other and find a way to laugh."

The challenge will be for Dean Holt to keep putting one foot in front of another. Holt takes about 50 prat falls in every show - by the end of the run he will have fallen approximately 2,300 times.

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