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Serious fun to be had at this weekend’s Children’s Festival of Silliness

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch will be performed during NACC’s annual Children’s Festival of Silliness on Jan. 27. From left, Sarah May Redmond as Betsy, Jeny Cassady as Edna, and Christine Reinfort as Molly. Mr. Hatch, the star of the show, is shown playing the ukulele. The troupe are part of Axis Theatre from Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Jayda Paige Photography for Axis Theatre

A classic children’s book will be brought alive on stage with the magic of puppetry during the Children’s Festival of Silliness at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC).

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, written in 1991 by author Eileen Spinelli and adapted for the stage by artistic director Chris McGregor of Axis Theatre in Vancouver, will be performed on Jan. 27.

“Jeny Cassady is the main puppeteer for Mr. Hatch and then the other two actors — Christine Reinfort and Sarah May Redmond — are also there to support the show and the storytelling,” McGregor said of the performance.

The troupe has been performing the story since 2017 McGregor said, and no matter the venue — be it across Canada, the USA, or in China — the response has been overwhelmingly positive from children and adults alike, he noted.

“They enjoy the music that’s in it and the magic of the puppetry. It all takes place in a fictional time frame around 1945, and after the Second World War in a laundromat.”

When transforming the book into a play, McGregor said one of the most challenging aspects was to incorporate the puppetry into the acting.

“It was such a huge challenge that actually took years of incorporating the details, but they make it seem so effortless and easy,” he said of the puppet’s creators and the performers.

Springing to life

Jeny Cassady has been puppeteering for more than 30 years and said they use an adapted version of the Japanese bunraku style of puppetry to bring Mr. Hatch to life on stage — meaning she, along with Christine and Sarah, are standing on stage creating his movements.

But while ensuring Mr. Hatch moves about in sync with the dialogue is an important part of the performance, Cassady said she also has to infuse and embody his character with emotion and personality.

And by doing so, although she is standing beside Mr. Hatch and talking in his voice, she said the audience feels like the words are being spoken by him instead.

The story itself is one that Cassady said everyone can relate to and said it “has a piece of my heart.”

“It’s filled with kindness, which is one of my favorite things. The main character is a gentleman who’s nearing retirement, Mr. Hatch, so it’s an unusual character to have, I think, in a children’s play.

“It’s all about inclusivity and being friendly with your neighbours and maybe not knowing what’s going on in everybody’s world at any time and therefore, it’s really important to just always be kind,” Cassady said of the main theme of the story.

“I love performing the show because the whole room just feels uplifted at the end of it, and this play is all about heart for me.”

Puppets at play

Cassady said the art of puppetry has endured over generations and puppets appeal to everyone.

“Puppets are able to do things that we humans can’t, so they can get away with so much more. So, it’s fun to see a puppet do something a little out of the ordinary,” she said.

“We already have suspended our disbelief by saying, ‘I know that’s a puppet. I see it’s a puppet, but I’m going to believe that it’s real for a little while.’”

“And so when it does something supernatural and really different that a human can’t do, it is surprising, fun, interesting,” Cassady said.

Atchoum rocks the theatre

Marie Coderre, NACC’s executive and artistic director, said the Children’s Festival of Silliness has been a mainstay at NACC for over a decade and is immensely popular with children and adults alike.

“We’re going to start with Axis Theatre and then there will be lots of activities in the lobby. We have a partnership with the library this year and they will bring games and workshop tables,” Coderre said of the afternoon’s events that will include the bouncy castle, photo booth, and face painting.

She said another highlight of the day will be the all-French performance of L’Hiver Rock D’Atchoum by Atchoum — the youth rock artist, which promises to be entertaining. That show begins at 4:30 p.m. to end the days’ events.

—By Jill Westerman