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Saturday, January 24, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Strange little gals in Falling Girls by University Theatre
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Megan McGlone, Katelyn Brown, and Arrie Callahan in University Theatre's production of Falling Girls.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

Blue's Clues Live! it ain't. Falling Girls, the latest production from University Theatre, offers an avant-garde approach to theater for the very young. While it is deliberately short on conventional storytelling, it's an oddly compelling experience that last Saturday afternoon kept young audience members -- and this adult -- fully engaged.

Falling Girls blends lighting, percussion, movement, dialogue and other elements into a seamless whole. Designer Sasha Augustine's set is like a whacked-out jungle gym from an expressionist film. Characters climb, twist and fling themselves on a series of platforms, poles, nets and a ladder.

The play is mainly geared towards pre-K through first-grade audiences and therefore runs a brief 40 minutes. It's an immersive experience, though, even before the show begins. Before heading into Hemsley Theatre, kids are led on a circuitous route that takes them to a "hamster disco" (pragmatically located near the bathrooms for those pre-show potty breaks).

Fuddy-duddy adults can descend into Hemsley Theatre down a flight of steps, but little ones can shoot down a slide. While there's plenty of conventional seating, there are also furry rugs that allow little ones to sprawl out and get closer to the action. As a disco balls twirls gently, sparkles of light graze the walls, and the three girls in the play enact a sort of wordless ballet as the audience gets seated.

One girl lives in the desert, occupying herself by daydreaming and doodling in her huge drawing pads. The other two are literally "falling girls": they plummet out of the sky from a distant planet. Whether you want to see them as real or as a figment of the first girl's imagination is up to you.

Winningly played by Katelyn Brown, Arrie Callahan and Megan McGlone, the girls tell stories of their planets but also interact and occasionally annoy each other as young children actually do (one girl likes to proclaim haughtily that "My father is the boss of everything!").

But to try to summarize the plot of Falling Girls would be both misleading and beside the point; while observations are made about friendship, imagination and other topics, this is not the sort of children's theater in which a clear-cut moral emerges. Instead, it works on a more intuitive level.

Throughout the show, the girls' dialogue and movement is punctuated effectively by live percussion from composer Jonathan Brooks, who is visible onstage just behind the jungle-gym-like apparatus.

The all-white costumes designed by Katelyn Brown fall midway between old-fashioned and space-age. Each girl's outfit is different, but the effect is almost like bloomers with a futuristic edge, which works well for a tale that mixes timeless pleasures (drawing, storytelling) with more fantastical ones (hurtling through space).

In her program notes, director Manon van de Water places Falling Girls, written by Dutch playwright Moniek Merkx, within the context of a growing movement towards theater for the very young in Europe. Yet I hope audiences of all ages will give this charming show a chance and surrender to its dreamlike logic.

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