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Redmoon, Chicago Children’s Theater unite for ‘Whale’ of a tale

Chicago Children's Theatre Redmoare teaming up for 'The Elephant   The Whale.' I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Chicago Children's Theatre and Redmoon are teaming up for "The Elephant & The Whale." I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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‘The Elephant & The Whale’

♦ April 10-May 26

♦ Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn

♦ Tickets, $20

♦ (872) 222-9555;

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It’s an epic adventure of giant proportions told in miniature — in a big way.

“The Elephant & The Whale,” the first collaboration between Chicago Children’s Theatre and Redmoon, is the story of friendship between the world’s two largest animals. The play is inspired by mythology, tall tales and some real history that seems fantastical, like box cars filled with salt water transported via train from Florida to Chicago for the Shedd Aquarium.

It’s a kid’s show but don’t expect anything, from the story to the spectacle, to be overly simplified for a younger audience.

“I celebrate the lack of distinction between adult theater and children’s theater,” said Seth Bockley, who wrote the show’s script and songs and co-created the story.

Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, show co-creator, said that working on a children’s show wasn’t a matter of children versus adults.

“This is not at all about a kind of dumbing down or oversimplification,” she said. “I think it is about respecting a knowledge base.”

A knowledge base that should leave challenged, said Redmoon co-artistic director Frank Maugeri.

“We want to make work that is sophisticated and challenging to young viewers,” he said. “We don’t want people to leave with answers. We want people to leave with a new set of questions they can talk about.”

Maugeri pitched the idea of “The Elephant & The Whale” to Chicago Children’s Theatre artistic director Jacqui Russell over a cup of coffee. It’s been a year of new moves for both theater companies — Redmoon is now operating out of a Pilsen space. The Chicago Children’s Theatre moved its performances to the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn.

Moving trucks aside, it was the right time and right show for the two to team up, said Russell, who had previously worked with Redmoon founder Blair Thomas.

“It felt like a natural progression,” Russell said. “I was also just really moved by Frank talking about this story, really moved by the image of an elephant and whale becoming friends and on a journey together. I felt like this was something fresh and new.”

At Redmoon’s core is spectacle — the theater company recently announced it will light vessels representing Chicago neighborhood issues like gangs and drugs on fire in the Chicago River in 2014. While “The Elephant & The Whale” is light on pyrotechnics, it is heavy on the wow factor as the giants of the land and sea bond.

Sixteen designers worked on the show, which was storyboarded out like a film. There are seven different mechanical boxes used as well as a working bicycle built for four that cranks out a scroll that the story plays out on.

The hour-long show spins its story through three types of puppetry.

“There is something inherently different about doing puppet theater versus non-puppet theater,” Bockley said. “For all three of us (story creators) we were truly craving the most satisfying and epic and sophisticated journey possible.”

The different types of puppets are not the kind you think of when you hear the word. No socks or marionettes are involved.

“When people hear the word puppetry they have a really specific image in mind, that it might look like Lamb Chop, Punch and Judy, the Muppets,” Maugeri said. “We’re taking the traditions of puppetry and making them hyper contemporary. Were doing something people will not expect.”

The show is constantly being retooled, in small ways and large, Maugeri said.

“We really are building it, taking it apart, building it, taking it apart,” he said. “It’s a very scary, wild living thing. You should feel that when you come see the show.”

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