Midway through Tucker's Robot my son whimpered, “This is scary!” and leapt into his mother’s arms to cower. The source of his terror – an appropriately grotesque gorilla puppet from the show’s King Kong parody sequence – was quickly dispatched with a dose of banana pudding, and my son settled back into his seat to watch the remainder of the show with a grin on his face. And I was left to marvel at the visceral effect art can have on those too young to be jaded.
I spent most of the Saturday matinee performance at Open Eye Figure Theatre watching my son watch his first play. Now that he's 3-and-a-half, my wife and I finally decided he was ready to deal with public performance. Part of our previous reluctance was courtesy for the performers and audience. He’s a strong-willed kid with a “take it apart and see how it works” approach to most things (both traits he gets from his mother; I'm more of a "keep quiet and just be glad it works at all" sort), so up until now we couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t rush the stage and try to commandeer a puppet. He also has a weird relationship with dramatic conflict. If he decides a book or TV show includes “mean guys” – his term for any kind of overt antagonist – even for a fleeting moment, it gets the kibosh. (The one exception, oddly, is Yellow Submarine, where he loves the music and artwork enough that he’ll tentatively sit through most of the Blue Meanies sequences.)
But aside from the brief encounter with the gorilla, the boy was too enthralled with the experience of live theater to notice the potential bring-downs. It’s a pretty simple story: Dweeby young Tucker finds a time-traveling robot named Ratchet in a garbage bin; the two of them have misadventures in the 1920s, prehistoric times and a robot-dominated future; and Tucker’s experiences give him the courage to confront and befriend the bullies who’ve been hassling him. There was a grin of amazement plastered across my son's face for most of the show. He laughed, even outright squealed, at the funny parts. He readily joined in with the audience participation bits – exchanging high fives with my wife and me to launch each foray into time travel – and eagerly headed down front to see one of the puppeteers demonstrate Ratchet after the show.
Watching someone get that invested in a production was downright invigorating. It wasn’t that my son believed any of the performance was “real.” He has a pretty solid grasp on fact vs. fiction, and Tucker isn’t the type of show that aspires to any major illusions of reality. A puppet show isn’t as made-up as one of his cartoons, but it’s less so than, say, story time at the local library. There’s something about that intermediate step that seemed to connect with him on a whole new level. As it turns out, a puppet show is at exactly the right remove for his sensibilities. (And to digress for a moment, how amazing is it to live in a city where high-quality, free children’s puppet theater is a regularly available option? We’ve got it pretty good, folks.)
It made me a little envious of the Open Eye performers, to be honest. It must be remarkably rewarding to make art that elicits such primal, unfiltered reactions from the audience. I’ve seen many people laugh at my work, and I’ve even seen a few people cry, but I’ve never written anything that sent someone physically scampering into his mother’s arms. A room full of little viewers spending most of the show on the literal edges of their seats is an exciting thing to see even as part of the crowd. It has to be awesomely validating from the stage.
For my son’s part, he hasn’t stopped talking about Tucker's Robot since we left the theater on Saturday. He’s parsed every scene a dozen times over, frequently chiding me for not remembering details as sharply as he does. He’s started making plans for a sequel in which Tucker, Ratchet and the former bullies travel the country having modern-day adventures. When I told him I was writing this article, he suggested that I write him a book about Open Eye Figure Theatre.
So yeah, I’d say the lively arts have a new fan. I don’t know that I could give a show higher praise than that.