Arts & Culture

Fairy tales and legends in family-friendly production at Cal Poly

‘MerryWinkle’ features live actors as well as a variety of shadow puppets. Pictured, from left, Brigitte Losey, Torin Lusebrink, and Jaide Whitman.
‘MerryWinkle’ features live actors as well as a variety of shadow puppets. Pictured, from left, Brigitte Losey, Torin Lusebrink, and Jaide Whitman. PHOTO BY TIM DUGAN

A selection of fairy tales and folk legends from around the world will come to life in Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre in a family-friendly production that uses magic, puppets, music, drama and comedy to tell the stories.

Professor Al Schnupp designed and directs “The MerryWinkle International Troupe of Vagabonds Performs a Delicious Potpourri of Fantastical Fairy Tales and Astonishing Folk Legends.”

The stories are laced with enchanting spells, tales of trickery, rogues and trolls, heroes and heroines.

Schnupp first became interested in story theater when, as a young student, he was involved in it in summer stock theater. He said he enjoys story theater because it’s physical and inventive, with pantomime, lowbrow antics and high drama. He knew that he wanted to spend more time with the genre, so later, when he was teaching, he designed a class in folk tales.

“I read a thousand folk tales and chose 30 for the class,” he said. “The students enjoyed it, and I decided I wanted to do a main stage show.”

The eight tales he uses in the production are from Italy, Germany, Russia, Norway, Persia and Spain. They all date from before 1922, so he didn’t need permission to use them. All are from anonymous writers and most were originally told in narration, but the director has adapted them to be performed mostly with dialogue.

“I wanted them to be different from each other, different in style and message. I wanted them to have tweaked perception and unique perspective. However, they all have good ends, where the virtuous and kind characters win.”

The fantastic character of the stories demanded a creative and colorful set. They are told from an elaborate pageant wagon crowned with miniature medieval towers and spires. Curtains with painted scenes and quilted borders have been designed for each story.

“I did a lot of painting,” Schnupp said, “and built 60 shadow puppets during the summer.”

He imposed the shadow puppets into a story called “The Scrawny Old Couple.” Each puppet character needed to be made in three sizes, with six ways for it to move. Three large marionettes were built for a story titled “A Most Agreeable Wife.” The heads are hand-carved from balsa wood, and the figures are two-thirds life size. They are too large to manipulate with strings, so they are hung from a track and moved from behind. Lauren Johnson is the puppeteer. Judy Roberto, a puppet master from San Jose, came to Cal Poly for three days in October to coach the manipulation of the marionettes.

Magical effects were designed by Rich Ferguson, a local mentalist and magician.

“He gave us ideas,” Schnupp said. “They aren’t sleight-of-hand magic, but trick props, like a floating glass, a sword swallower, a standing rope. There are six or seven of them scattered throughout the show.”

Sound effects are by Jack Adams, who also plays music and sings. The special effects are low-tech, the director noted.

“It’s theater of the imagination,” Schnupp said. “A person becomes a cupboard, things are pulled out of the air, there is mime.”

The company of vagabonds includes nine performers. Brigitte Losey and Torin Lusebrink play the managers of the troupe. Ryan Austin, Tommy Booth, Alex Haughton, Juliet Knox, Sarah Schiff, Arash Shahabi and Jade Whitman play the vagabonds.

“It’s fun for the students to be such different characters, a troll, a crone, a thief and a king. They have developed wonderful accents.”

Thomas John Bernard designed the creative costumes, inspired by some funky 1960s quilted costumes and fabrics in mixed patterns, Schnupp explained.

“I picked up the style in the set, and some of the students designed some of the curtain borders,” he said.

This is a family show, probably best for ages 5 and up, the director said, “It’s low-tech non-Disney Disneyland.”