A little cheese, a lot of chuckling

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“There’s something about children’s theater,” said James Engberg, co-artistic director of Mad Duckling Children’s Theater. “It’s anti-intellectual, it’s pure. There’s just so much energy; they’re absolutely just crackling with energy.”

“The Old Man Who Loved Cheese,” the second and final production by the summer theater company, holds true to this statement. Complete with homemade musical instruments, animated chase scenes and water cannons, the Mad Duckling is looking to continue its reputation for putting smiles on young faces as an outreach to the Eugene community. Mad Duckling is a summer theater production organization that employs a small number of students to put on two tomfoolery-ridden plays.

“There is a cheese police, and butterscotch guns and cannons,” Engberg said. “With an expected 100 degrees, the water guns might be nice.”

In its 15th year of summer performances, Mad Duckling has put on plays such as “The Jungle Book,” “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and “Cinderella, or, It’s Okay to Be Different.”

The theater’s performances usually stem from warm-hearted children’s books, and this summer’s productions are no different. This year’s six-student crew has already put on “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type,” a recently popular children’s story about a farmer whose cows can, well, type.

The next performance, running July 28-Aug. 1 and Aug. 4-8 at 11 a.m. in Amazon Park, is “The Old Man Who Loved Cheese,” from the book by Garrison Keillor. The story follows Wallace P. Flynn, a man who loves to eat smelly cheese – which only becomes a serious problem when he is forced to choose between his family and his love for cheese.

The intended audience and the venue for these plays alone bespeak the theater’s hope to bridge the connection between the University and the Eugene communities. “Most of the people have come for several years. They’re families and groups, day cares,” said Engberg. “It’s really good for us to work with the community.”

With this outreach, one of Engberg’s hopes is that Mad Duckling impacts children and their understanding of theater. Engberg’s most eye-opening moment came when he was talking with a mother after a performance of “Click, Clack, Moo.” Engberg recalled with a smile: The mother approached him, saying, “‘My daughter was wondering where the TV is going to be.’ It was amazing to me that we were introducing theater to this child.”

“We’re making reading more of an experience and it’s amazing what is in kids’ heads and their imagination,” Engberg said. “Sometimes we take it for granted.”

Kelly Menachemson went to see Click, Clack, Moo three times during its two-week performance run, and her son Noah went four. “For him, he saw something new in it every time he went,” she said. “There is a piece of it that’s interactive, and he was looking forward to that and became much more comfortable and excited about doing it every time.”

As Menachemson’s first experience with Mad Duckling, she has a fresh perspective on how the actors impact their audience. “I think its great; it’s one more way the University is able to contribute to the community,” she said. “Although my kid is younger – he will tell you he is 3.8 – kids who are a little older, like 6-year-olds, can see that (the actors) are older than them, but that they’re students. It gives them the idea that this is something they could do someday.”

Each of the six college-aged actors participate in this childish summer job for various reasons. Lizzie Malarkey, who plays several parts including Louise, the cheese-lover’s wife, loves both theater and children, and the prospect of making this her job is not out of the question. “I did children’s theater all through high school as my job. I would teach classes, like ‘cowboy classes.’ It was cute,” said Malarkey. A theater arts major, she attributes her love for theater and children’s theater to her childhood experience with live performances. “I went to a lot of children’s theaters’ plays and my parents were always really into bringing me to the theater. I kind of got hooked really, really early.”

Josh Lange has a similar reason for joining the cast, hoping to make an impact on children while at the same time gaining experience working with them. “It’s a great way to put theater into their lives, show them the power of performance. The arts are being cut in most schools and this is a great way to give them exposure to that,” said Lange, a theater arts and history major who plays several roles, including Junior, in the production. He hopes to become a teacher and is using this summer job as preparation. “I would like to be able to use this as a way for me to get some experience dealing with children and finding ways to relate to them,” he said.

Andrew Barton, a graduate of Bennington College, grew up in Eugene and acts in Mad Duckling. “I would watch (the performances) as a kid. This year has been great; I have gotten the best chance to play the best roles for me,” he said. Playing the main character, Wallace P. Flynn, Barton enjoys being idolized by the young audience. “It’s an opportunity to really succeed at making people happy,” he said. “The kids love us; it’s great when you see them around town, and they yell, ‘it’s Farmer Brown!'”

He confides that Mad Duckling has helped him in other aspects of his life, as well. “In high school I used to take girls on dates to see the shows,” he said. “It’s great; you see kids smiling and running around. It’s a great date mood.”

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