Stage & Dance

'Madeline's Christmas' is full of magical moments

The leap from page to stage can be challenging for theatrical adaptations of well-known books, particularly those rife with fantastical feats of magic, a challenge Lexington Children's Theatre is all too familiar with.

To bring particularly fanciful literary imaginings to life, you have to get extra creative.

Take last year's adaptation of The Neverending Story, for instance. The theater tackled novelist Michael Ende's fantasy classic, which included difficult-to-stage scenarios such as a flying dragon and ominous "nothing," with clever props and staging.

This season's holiday offering, Madeline's Christmas, an adaptation from Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline series popular in the 1940s and beyond, presented similar challenges.

For one, the story calls for 12 little girls to fly. When the girls at Madeline's Paris boarding school become too sick to go home for the holidays — except hardy, resilient Madeline — Christmas is saved by a rug merchant with some magic up his sleeve. The sickly students get better and are whisked home for the holidays on a magic carpet.

In deciphering how to stage this scene, director Vivian Snipes came up with an innovative approach: ninjas.

Not real ninjas. That is just a playful, theater shorthand term Snipes has given to the practitioners of Japanese human art, a movement-based theatrical technique that involves a trick of the eye where events in the foreground of the stage are actually being manipulated by performers in the background.

Using a special "light curtain," objects appear to float or move by themselves, when in reality, performers, usually dressed in black, are choreographing each movement.

This way, carpets can fly. A mess can clean itself. And all sorts of other "magical" moments can happen with ease.

"The challenge of having 12 girls flying on the stage at the same time on magic carpets meant we had to find some form of interesting and creative way to be able to affordably fly 12 girls all at once," Snipes says.

Snipes has known about Japanese human art for a while, but this is the first Lexington Children's Theatre production where the technique seemed like the perfect solution.

"This is the first time that I've really used it full out. This one seemed the most appropriate because there are magic moments other than just flying where we use our black magic ninjas," says Snipes, referring to the all-black costumes worn by the performers.

"We've done a lot of shows where I've had an ensemble dressed similarly," Snipes says, "but this is truly the first time that we're trying to use what's called a light curtain.

"The light shoots either straight down or at a very sharp degree toward the floor so that you're lighting a very thin space, so they have to hold props away from their bodies into that stream of light."

Snipes is taking advantage of the technique to create more than one magical moment.

"We have been having fun finding where we can insert this into the production where it wasn't necessarily supposed to have that kind of a magic moment," Snipes says.

A scattering of rose petals that pick up themselves and the magical dispensation of ice cream are just a couple examples.

Since Madeline's Christmas is a "Discovery" production, most of the cast are not professional actors but children and families. That means Snipes' "ninjas" are mostly youngsters from Central Kentucky, including Fayette, Scott, Jessamine, Woodford, Anderson, and Mercer counties.

You can see them — or rather, you can "not" see most of them — when Madeline's Christmas opens Sunday at the Lexington Opera House.

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