You know how restaurant menus list some items as “heart-healthy”? They could do the same thing at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre because their “Make Believe Neighborhood” is a show that does your heart good.
Inspired by children’s TV icon Mr. Rogers, it turns the theater into a cabinet of wonders, with dozens of puppets, various video projections, a dreamy soundscape by Martin Dosh that’s part Steve Reich, part late-model Radiohead, and lighting effects that create the illusion of being in an ocean.
If that sounds trippier than “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” it is. But the effect is something like a supersized version of the old TV show, one that is aimed at theatergoers of almost all ages (its two hours could be a stretch for little ones) and designed to illuminate the inspiring lives of Fred Rogers and of the people who try to make south Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood a better place.
As on the TV series, the puppets are the stars. The Bart Buch-conceived show unleashes a dizzying array of them — lamps become people, people become puppets, boxes become a week in the life of a TV series, tiny houses glow with the unseen lives of the neighborhood.
As I watched, I kept wondering why, at least for me, they are so magical. Why, for instance, is a puppet balloon a more potent and moving image than an actual balloon? I think it has to do with the fact that the puppet requires our participation. We are forced to imagine it into existence, and using our imaginations plugs us into something eternal, soulful and nostalgic.
Beginning with a sweet image of tiny Fred as a kid, playing with blocks, the four performers — Seth Eberle, Masanari Kawahara, Angela Olson and Laurie Witzkowski — relate events from his life and work. (His sweaters were knitted by his mom, for instance, and he responded to everyone who wrote him, including the friend who attended with me and received a regretful “no” when he invited Rogers to his fifth birthday party.)
This show makes a case not only for Rogers as a great guy but also a fine songwriter — Jayanthi Kyle’s cover of his “The Truth Will Make Me Free”is a knockout — and a profound thinker. It also salutes Rogers’ legacy with stories of “neighborhood helpers” such as the late Muriel Simmons, who combated hatred by opening her home to the Phillips community.
There’s a lot happening in “Make Believe Neighborhood” and it’s not all perfect: Some scene changes should be swifter and the audio is occasionally hard to hear. But, as I watched one tiny puppet give another a piggyback ride, supported by four skilled, human hands, it occurred to me that puppeteers are a special kind of “helper” and that, as theatergoers participate in the act of imagining their puppets to life, so are we.