If the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade evokes the quaint heart of the Big Apple, Dobama's Marilyn Bianchi Kids' Playwriting Festival does ditto duty for Cleveland. Last week's 21st annual showcase of area youths' literary fruit is evidence that the event has remained delightfully naive and wide-eyed, thanks to reams of Elmer's glue and crepe paper, and battalions of volunteer Peter Pans and Alices.
Gamboling down the balloon-strewn Dobama staircase, one has the giddy feeling of being shanghaied from reality and thrown into a Mary Poppins pastel-animated chalk painting. This one is a sweltering talent show of new-age Ethel Merman stage mothers, dolled up in Nieman-Marcus sun dresses, and Dick Van Dyke dads grasping their video cameras in a parental conga line to capture every Kodak moment for posterity.
To commence the festivities are Cleveland's own Regis and Kathie Lee, Don Bianchi and Sonya Robbins. Bianchi, a true renaissance man, is the founder of Dobama, a noted director, playwright, and a classic '60s good-hearted liberal. Every year, he wets audiences' eyes with his understated tributes to the humanity of his late wife, Marilyn, and charming snippets of his Sir James Barrie-ish philosophical lollipops ("In a world where people break things, we have a new generation creating wonders").
If Bianchi is the elder statesman of the occasion, Artistic Director Sonya Robbins is the Elizabeth Regina who rules the proceedings. Outwardly, she suggests that brand of moneyed debutante that used to grace Life magazine covers of the '30s. She exudes an iron-willed, blue-blooded assurance, making this kids' playwriting festival her kingdom and delighting in selecting actors and directors for such minipageants as Meg the Mouse, A Very Fairy Christmas, and that potential future classic, The Ugly Flower.
At the same time, she appropriates for herself the evening's darkest, most fully realized work, Hide and Seek, an eighth-grade Strindbergian exploration of suicide in the preteen set by a teenybopper Sylvia Plath named Raqui Brown. The eighteen winning plays were, according to the program, selected from nearly five hundred entries.
One of the many dividends of this festival is being reminded of the mounds of unsuspected talent that have been unearthed from the area. Among the many shining new faces, there is Skip Harger's pixilated transvestite old lady, kidnapped by the dastardly Allen the Pirate to help throw a Christmas cotillion for the neighborhood fairies; Ivy Kopit's leather dyke godmother, sent to help "little Tina" develop people skills; and Jesse Blakely's Bob Fosse-style cat-on-the-make for Meg the Mouse's delectable tail.
First among the old pros is Kirk Brown, the string-bean scene-stealer, the perennial Captain Hook of the occasion, filching every other chuckle with rapscallion glee.
Another reassuring aspect of the festival is the fact that all the Big Brother electronic booby traps created to stifle youngsters' imaginations have failed to totally appropriate Wonderland. Here, we may still dwell on love-starved pirates, insolent flowers, disobedient mice, evil computers, and naughty fairies. Among the playlets' pressing concerns are the complexities of finding the perfect best friend and fuzzy critters learning to live in harmony with each other.
Cynics who missed this enchant-ing event for ephemeral nonsense that composes the so-called real world will have to wait until next year for the 22nd festival. It is incumbent upon every adult, even the serious ones who hate Star Wars. Everyone needs an occasional serving of ice cream and birthday cake for the soul.
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