The Princess, the Unicorn, and the Smelly Foot Troll at Downtown Phoenix's Great Arizona Puppet Theater
The setup: Great Arizona Puppet Theater, an outstanding cultural resource since 1983, is currently presenting a revival of one of its most popular original shows, The Princess, the Unicorn, and the Smelly Foot Troll. (Preschool audiences age out of shows within a few years, while another mini-generation has reached toddlerhood to fill in for them.)
Great Arizona Puppet Theater Popsicle the unicorn and his close yet exploitive friend Princess Harriet.
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Older siblings have returned to school, and field trips are not in full swing yet, so GAPT's weekday performances on Wednesday through Friday mornings are a little low-key right now, which can be perfect for very young children and sleepy journalists. Or you can bring a bigger, friskier group (or even arrange a birthday party) on Saturdays and Sundays.
The execution: Young audiences are remarkable and inspiring for a number of reasons, but what I really noticed at Princess was their fierce concentration. (Children's spontaneity and lack of boundaries let performers know right away whether they're succeeding.)
The little girl next to me was riveted, mostly in quiet yet near-hysterical bliss. There are times you're supposed to respond to puppets when they ask you things, but she was way ahead of the game. When Troll and the rest of us heard the tinkling bell of Popsicle the unicorn -- offstage, in the distance, as it were -- and Troll said something like, "Someone's coming. I wonder who it is," my neighbor shouted, "It's Popsicle!" Frankly, anyone who wants to light a fire under the exposition is okay in my book.
Despite all the fairy-tale frou-frou and sparkliness, the boys in the house seemed to like the show as well. There is, after all, a character named Smelly Foot Troll. Also, when Princess Harriet places her birthday party invitations in Popsicle's mail pouch, she reads the guests' names out loud, and apparently several of the princes and princesses who were invited were sitting in the audience! "How do they know our names?" one of the boys asked in shock. (Princess Curtains was not invited, but hey, that's all right. I needed to go buy wine anyway.)
The medium-size rod marionettes are sculpted from foam, covered with papier-mâché, and beautifully painted and costumed. They look like old-fashioned carved-wood puppets.
Lisa Pirro's painted backdrops are simply gorgeous, like book illustrations, and despite being maybe 3 by 5 feet tops, establish the settings in the short play very well. The script is mostly about being thoughtful and kind to your friends, but it's also funny and charming, with wiggling butts, original songs, and those moments of contemplative, self-conscious puppet dialogue that I've always found appealing at GAPT.