A Preschooler's Theater Review: "Hanako and the Cherry Tree" at Thistle Theatre

isaac-and-the-oniBy Elisa Murray

"That was fun!" my two-and-half-year-old son exclaimed no less than three times at the conclusion of the enchanting, 45-minute production of Thistle Theatre's Hanako and the Cherry Tree last Sunday. And while it's true that he says that about many things these days (including pulling a clothes hamper around our house), I could tell from the glow on his face that he meant something like, "That was super-duper, better-than-ice-cream fun!"

The thing is, my husband and I felt the same way. It was the inaugural visit for all three of us to a Thistle Theatre production, and we were charmed by the spare, lovely set, the skill of the puppeteers, the interplay between several different kinds of puppetry and the quality of the story.

The story in brief: A gutsy young Japanese girl named Hanako finds a cherry tree and -- naturally -- starts picking cherries. Alas, it is owned by miserly miser Mr. Yama, who proceeds to accidentally swallow a cherry pit, which leads to a tree growing out of his head, which leads to other travails of mythic proportions. The thoroughly modern Hanako  decides to help him, and ends up battling Japanese bad guys such as an oni (ogre), a tengu (mountain goblin) and even a serpent.

As you can imagine, high drama ensues, told adeptly through Thistle's bunraku puppets (where two or three puppeteers in black operate the puppets from behind), as well as occasional interludes of shadow puppets and black-light puppets. The production has enough slapstick to appeal to the preschool set, and enough elegance of execution and Japanese cultural touches to engage the rest of us. A couple of the scenes, including a clash between Hanako and a colorful serpent in the pond that had grown inside Mr. Yama's head (!), were particularly well-done.

A nice feature of the shows is that kids can "meet" the puppets -- and their people -- after the show (see above photo). Hanako is recommended for ages 3 and up, though -- as we found out -- it's engaging enough that you could give it a go for the toddler set.

The only bad news: Hanako and the Cherry Tree only has one more weekend of public shows, in Ballard, before it wraps.

If you go

When: Friday, March 16, 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, March 17, 18, 1 p.m., 3 p.m.

Where: Sunset Hill Community Club, 3003 N.W. 66th St., Seattle

Price: $8-$9

Tickets: Buy online at  thistletheatre.org or call 206-524-3388

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