Theater for children’s audiences is often a hit-and-miss proposition: fun for the kids and less so for the adults who chaperone them. The play Balloonancy breaks this mold and is a delight for young children and their parents. Its mix of puppetry, wordless situational comedy, and Chaplin-esque physical humor is a winning combination.
The narrative of Balloonancy is deceptively simple: a grumpy Old Man (Robert Dorfman) prepares to celebrate his birthday alone and is interrupted by a Red Balloon that floats onto the set and into his life. The Red Balloon is a full character in and of itself, drifting frequently across the stage and reappearing magically in new locations, thanks to a magician’s hat’s worth of set-and stagehand-driven effects and some excellently subtle puppetry by Dorfman. The two enjoy a surprising amount of adventures over the course of 45 minutes at the Children’s Theatre Company.
Although the action is set in a vaguely rustic France, there are no words spoken aloud in this play; all the communication comes through movement, expression, and body language. This is a strength–besides transcending the barriers of spoken languages, it makes it very easy to enjoy and follow the play when preschoolers excitedly comment on the action (as they are wont to do). Perhaps the best commentary on Dorfman’s twin performances (as the Old Man and the Red Balloon’s puppeteer) is to simply point out the long line of children eagerly waiting to speak and have their picture taken with him at the end of the show. Many theatrical productions leave younger children sprinting for the exit, but not this one.
All this suggests that Balloonancy, the brainchild of playwright Barry Kornhauser, is poised to float for a long time on peals of laughter. It recalls much of the appeal of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, and has already received the American Association of Theatre in Education Distinguished Play Award. While it’s in Minneapolis, though, it offers a sterling and humorous experience for preschoolers and parents alike – and the ages in-between, should they not be turned off by the “children’s” label. Some things are too good to pass up.