- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

Lilia Slavova, a director, choreographer and puppeteer at the Classika Theatre, believes that to be a patron of the theater, one must get an early start. Ms. Slavova and the Classika Theatre do an excellent job of enticing youngsters into a lifelong love of the dramatic arts. The professional troupe presents mime, dance, drama and puppet shows in the Russian tradition in its intimate theater in Shirlington.

“If you start early, then you develop the habit of understanding live theater,” Ms. Slavova says. “Here in America, there are children age 13 who have never been to a live theater. They have only seen movies.”

In movies and on television shows, the scenery and characters are provided in detail for viewers. In live shows, the actors and the audience must use their imagination.

The current production of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” uses a combination of huge puppets, live actors and imaginative set design (such as a shimmery fabric “pond”) to tell the classic tale.

Ms. Slavova says she thought “The Ugly Duckling” would be a perfect way to honor the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth.

“The story of the duckling follows the author’s life of being ostracized by his family and neighbors for being different,” she says.

When Americans think of puppets, they might immediately think of the Muppets. However, European theater has a long, rich history of puppetry that Classika is seeking to share with local audiences, Ms. Slavova says. Classika started presenting puppet shows six years ago.

The theater uses different types of puppets in various productions. In “The Ugly Duckling,” Japanese-inspired bunraku puppets — large puppets that require great skill to maneuver — are used. Past productions (including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Thumbelina” and “The Nutcracker”) featured marionettes and rod puppets, among others.

Because the Classika Theatre is so small (about 100 seats), it is a good place for children. The audience can see and hear unobstructed, and young patrons can feel they are part of the action.

Children were on the edge of their seats at a recent performance as they watched the duckling puppets comically hatch from oversized eggs. They laughed at the loose-limbed antics of Penelope (the title character) and her siblings. They voiced encouragement when the ducklings were trying to swim.

Classika, which recently merged with Synetic Studio (a company that presents drama more geared for adults), also offers classes for children in drama, physical acting and art (such as set and puppet design). Classika will hold four two-week sessions of Mystery Summer Camp from late June to late August. The camp is open to children ages 4 to teens.

“The Ugly Duckling” will finish its run June 5. Classika will present “Cinderella,” with actors and puppets, beginning June 18. Upcoming productions for the 2005-06 season include “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Wondrous White Winter,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Little Mermaid.”

The company also will present “Kashtanka,” the Russian story of a lost dog and his friends.

When you go

Location: Classika Theatre is located at 4041 S. 28th St. in the Shirlington section of Arlington.

Directions: From Interstate 395, exit at Shirlington/ Quaker Lane. Follow the road past the WETA building and make a right onto Quincy Street. Go straight one block. Classika Theatre will be on the left, between the Mill End Shop and Toro Tapas.

Admission: Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Season subscriptions are available.

Parking: Free street and lot parking are nearby.

Now playing: “The Ugly Duckling,” Saturdays and Sundays at noon through June 5. The troupe will present “Cinderella” Saturdays and Sundays at noon beginning June 18.

More information: 703/824-6200 or www.classika.org.

Notes:

• Classika-Synetic Theatre is a production company founded in the Russian tradition. The troupe presents many classic fairy tales through acting, puppetry, dance and mime.

• The theater facility in Arlington is an intimate setting, so children can really see and hear.

• Classika also offers classes for children, summer camp, birthday parties and school outreach programs.

• The theater is located near several restaurants.

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