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Puppet theater aimed at grownups, kids

Mild-mannered Frank, who suspects that pigeons have targeted him, goes on an adventure to solve what he perceives as a problem in “The Pigeoning.” Two performances are planned in Red Wing 7:30 p.m. April 26-27, 2019. Submitted photo

"The Pigeoning," an original story praised by the New York Times as "a tender, fantastical symphony of the imagination," comes to the Sheldon Theatre stage April 26-27.

It won't be an in-and-out of town stop for creator Robin Frohardt, however. She and her crew will spend four days in Red Wing, interacting with children as well as adults in the days leading up to the stage shows.

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The production uses Japanese style bunraku style puppetry and an original music score to tell the story. It's described as comedic yet heartfelt, but it's not a kiddie show.

"I made it for grownups," Frohardt explained. "But kids love it," she added. While all ages seem to enjoy it, "Children and adults get very different things out of it."

"The Pigeoning" is the story of Frank, a mild-mannered office worker who is obsessed with cleanliness and order. He wants to work at his tidy desk or eat a sandwich on a park bench without being bothered. But germs and birds make that hard to do.

"Pigeons embody the filth and chaos of the natural world in the city," Frohardt said. Frank is convinced they are plotting against him and sets out to solve what he sees as a problem.

An award-winning artist from Brooklyn, N.Y., Frohardt not only created and directed the play, but also designed the whimsical puppets, props and set.

A team of five is responsible for the performance, she said, explaining how bunraku puppetry works. A traditional Japanese style of theater — which she is using in a decidedly non-traditional way — bunraku is also known as "tabletop puppetry."

The puppets are not like marionettes with strings or Muppet style characters with hands inside them, she explained. "These puppets are controlled by three puppeteers working together" to bring a character to life using small rods to manipulate limbs.

For Frank, a 34-inch tall, thin-lipped older gentleman who wears white tube socks with his black shoes, one person operates his head and left side, another operates the torso and right side, and a third person makes the feet move.

"A special collaboration among the three people, who must think as one," results in the puppets moving as realistically as a human, Frohardt said.

The puppeteers, dressed in black, are visible all the time, she said. "That's part of the enjoyment. You are aware of them but forget they're there." Viewers get fully absorbed in the performance but they also see the work it takes to bring a character to life.

Frohardt acknowledged that the play has underlying themes "about us trying to control nature" and keep everything safe and orderly in a world full of chaos, danger and disorder.

"Sometimes it makes us miserable in our struggle to have control over everything."

Critics have applauded "The Pigeoning" since it debuted in 2013. It continues to tour at home and abroad, and has been translated into several languages.

Frohardt, a 2018 Guggenheim fellow, "has a knack for taking a simple premise to an elaborate realization," according to Sheldon publicity. "Her rich imagination, unique sense of humor and stunning technical craft come together to create work that defies the conventions of traditional storytelling."

"The Pigeoning" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 26 and 27 at the Sheldon. Tickets are $20 for adults. As a Kids Play Free event, one child under 14 will be admitted free with a paid adult admission.

For more information visit the Sheldon box office, call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.

If you go …

Who: Robin Frohardt

What: “The Pigeoning”

When: 7:30 p.m. April 26-27

Where: Sheldon Theatre

How much: $20; Kids Play Free

More info: 651-388-8700, www.sheldontheatre.org

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