An enormous storm has torn through the world, carrying animals from far-flung places and depositing them here in Pittsburgh, in the “Forest of Everywhere.” They’re lonely, confused, feeling out of place, and in need of kind and welcoming explorers to come listen to their stories, play with them, and help them feel at home again.
That’s the back story to Bricolage’s gently enchanting “Forest of Everywhere,” an immersive, sensory-friendly theatrical experience for children of all ages and abilities that conveys the message, on the level of both form and content, that no one should ever feel out of place because they are different.
You enter the Forest after spending a few moments inside the hollow of an enormous paper mache tree, where an alpaca named Simon (Renee Rabenold) and a forest ranger (Dave JM Bielewicz) explain how you can help the new inhabitants of the forest adjust to their new homes, and ask you to take an oath promising to be kind and helpful before entering the space. The slumbering tree wakes up long enough to grant you access to the forest – through a tunnel of what appear to be shimmering stars – where you find an inviting interior playground, filled with little rooms and tunnels that belong to the different animal-characters (all represented by puppets) who seek new friends.
There’s a donkey, named “Don Key” (Parag S. Gohel) who likes to dance, and gets you to help him find his groove again. There’s Esther, an ostrich (Missy Moreno), whose entire bling-filled dressing room has been blown to Pittsburgh with her; she’ll invite you to dress up in her feather boas and beads and to invent a new song with her. There’s a crocodile, Sobi (Tal Kroser), who lives in a moss-covered hut, and who will share stories with you. Hops the Bunny (Kelsey Robinson) doesn’t speak at all, but her tunnel is perhaps the most soothing and centering space of all – filled with objects of all different textures to touch and sort, and with tubes of scents to sniff, it’s the kind of place just bout any of us would want to retreat to when life gets too stressful. A Prince (Grayson Rumsey) escorts you out through a hidden passage when you are ready to leave, and gives you the opportunity to conjure a gift from a magical fountain before you depart.
The sound (Sarah Pickett, Chris Evans, and David Gotwald) and lighting (K. Jenna Ferree) create a soothing, calm ambience that helps transform Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s cardboard trees and ingenious huts, caverns, and rooms into an enticing and inviting play-space. The space is set up precisely to accommodate young children, or children on the autism spectrum, whose attention span, ability to focus, or tolerance of high stimulation make traditional theater inaccessible – kids can roam, interact, play, and be as involved or uninvolved as they choose. Charged with helping the animals who’ve been displaced find ways of “being themselves” in this space, the children are free to do the same. Last year I had the chance to “playtest” an earlier iteration of the show, when it premiered as part of the Children’s Festival; at that time, I was invited to regress a bit and participate as if I were a child, age and personality of my choosing. I opted to be an inquisitive, unruly, and easily distractible child, and had quite a bit of fun unleashing my id and exploring the various activities as if I were a five-year-old. This year, I attended as an adult, and although the Bricolage team encourages adults to attend sans children, in truth its target audience remains the under-ten set, and the full experience isn’t really available to those of us who have lost our ability to think magically the way children do (or who aren’t comfortable pretending to be a child among real children).
So I asked my two young friends, Murray and Alice, to share their thoughts about the “Forest of Everywhere.” Here’s what they said:
What did you like most about the Forest?
“I liked the bunny cave. There was a tunnel where Hops can sleep in. She doesn’t talk. She did a movement that showed you where she sleeps. She has things you can smell. She likes to smell them too.”
“I discovered a yellow foam hole, that when you pushed it, it felt good on your hand. I liked the slide, but you had to do a dance to slide on the slide.”
“I liked the part where we met Shushy. I had a lot of questions. Why is she snoring? Why won’t the door open? Why is there a speaker? The crocodile told stories, how Shushy became a real live tree.”
Who did you like helping?
“I spent a lot of time with Donkey, I helped him a lot.”
“I helped the bird.”
How would you describe it to a friend?
“It’s this crazy forest with all these people you need to help!”
“There are people but they have puppets, and I don’t know how they do it but they make it look like the puppets are really talking!”
Do you think other kids would like it?
“Yes! It was a lot of fun!”