Circus delivers environmental message with humor Serious lessons underlie jokes


When the circus rolls into town for a one-day performance tomorrow, its cast of characters will include High Flying Hydrocarbons, Notorious Nitrogen Oxides and an earth in the balance.

The inventive Save-the-Earth Circus, a production of the Connecticut-based Crabgrass Puppet Theatre, should prove a hit with parents, as well as children, thanks to its blend of funny-bone humor, fast-paced puppet action and serious lessons aimed at changing wasteful habits.

"One thing I really look for before booking a performance is whether it will offer children the humor and action needed to keep them interested, as well as some element of education," says Barbara Lett, special events assistant for the Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation, which is sponsoring the show. "This show offers all of those elements on a very timely theme."

The 2 p.m. performance at Atholton High School is part of the department's Children's Performing Art Series, now in its 12th year.

The series has offered five live performances from January through March. The performances, which have ranged from mime shows to opera, are presented at area high schools.

Also offered in the series are family-oriented live concerts and other events in the summer at Centennial Lake near Columbia.

Most winter performances draw crowds of 400, but Ms. Lett believes that the Crabgrass Puppet Theatre show tomorrow might draw an even larger crowd because a performance of "The Reluctant Dragon" by the theater group last winter was such a huge hit with those in attendance. The story focused on a young boy who rescues a dragon shunned by society.

"Their puppets are really wonderful, and they do a fantastic job of mixing humor with the important lessons of the show's theme. It's very educational," Ms. Lett said.

The Save-the-Earth Circus will feature puppet skits aimed at teaching children about the need for water conservation, recycling and solid waste reduction, and reducing air pollution.

For example, a trapeze act featuring puppets with names such as High Flying Hydrocarbons and Notorious Nitrogen Oxides shows the audience how pollutants from car exhaust rise into the atmosphere and form smog when struck by sunlight.

"This show is really about changing habits; showing people what they can do on an individual basis to conserve and protect our environment," says Fred Wolinsky, director of Encore!, the Wappingers Falls, N.Y., booking agent for the group. "The aim is to create environmental awareness in the context of a fun event. The messages are very clear. The audience can't miss them."

The duo behind the Crabgrass Puppet Theatre, Connecticut residents Jamie Keithline and Bonny Hall, have a particular interest in environmental conservation and awareness, Mr. Wolinsky says.

"They have a very serious personal interest in the topic and wanted to produce a show that had the potential for changing the way people live," he says.

The educational potential of the show won't end when the curtains close, Ms. Lett says. A "study guide" will be distributed to parents in the audience so they can develop a dialogue about the show and its lessons with their children after the show, she says.

Most shows in the series include such educational handouts, Ms. Lett says.

"I want the children and families to have fun and be exposed to live culture, but we also want them to be educated," she says.

Ms. Lett believes that the Children's Performing Art Series provides an important option for families with children seeking low-cost activities that children and parents will enjoy. Most performances cost $3 and are appropriate for children 4 and older.

"The performances offer families a time to be together in a fun, cultural activity and to have the opportunity to interact with one another about the show afterward," says Ms. Lett. "Families are so tight on the time they have to spend together nowadays. I really believe they need low-cost activities like this to pull them together for sharing."

Ms. Lett says she prescreens many performances before booking them to see how actors and puppeteers interact with children and parents after a show -- an element she considers critical to a show's potential for success.

"The group putting on the show has to be able to come down ofstage immediately after a show. The kids usually just flock to the stage afterward. They want to know how the puppets work, how the lights work, and see who the actors are behind the masks.

"That in itself is enormously educational," she says. "It can also set aside a child's fear of the stage and inspire a love of live theater for life."

Information: 313-7280.

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