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God's Puppets 

by Michael Bowen

Crystalline memories, children's riddles and pranks, cutesy ghost stories, platters full of heart-warming whimsy -- Dylan Thomas's memory play recollecting A Child's Christmas in Wales (at the Civic through Dec. 21) is enough to rouse the inner Scrooge in us all.

Yet somehow Director John G. Phillips finds a way to awaken even jaded adults to the childlike wonder they once possessed, back before the horrors of junior high, back when their main concern was how to keep playing until after dark and how to stay up past bedtime.

After a brief lulling overture, music director Gary Laing's keyboards and percussion turn manic, and figures dressed in white from head to toe race onstage, carrying aloft banners that announce the play's title. It's an arresting way to proclaim that naturalistic acting will be used sparingly tonight: We will drift in and out of dream, fantasy, anecdote, memory.

The white-clad figures turn out to be puppeteers. The buzz from Phillips's two previous productions of this same script, back in 1994 and 1995, is that the puppets are the big draws here. And it's true. There's a 15-foot-tall snow cat and an equally imposing cowboy on a bucking bronco. There are decidedly unimposing constables and firefighters, all manipulated with sticks and strings by those ghostly figures who surprisingly blend right into Peter Hardie's snow-covered set. A limousine driver-puppet comes off as a little flat, vocally and literally -- flapping papier-mach & eacute; mouths aren't terribly expressive -- but the virtue of all the puppetry lies in its appeal to our imaginations, both children's and adults'. Bring on real actors as the local gendarmes, and their authority will seem intimidating; parody them as puppets, and Phillips' cast is able to engage the audience while at the same time bolstering Thomas' mock-heroic, mock-all-authority boyhood tone.

In the crucial central role of Dylan, Aaron Alfred Nelson projects Mr. Rogers-style calm and comfort. Cherub-faced but tall, he fits in as both child and adult -- not an easy assignment. Still, the scenes with his boyhood friends seem less like spontaneous fun than the recitation of lines from a half-century ago in the land of Wales, where all the place names are long and unpronounceable and the customs sometimes inexplicable. Nelson, however, is convincing, all the way from boyish pushing and shoving to Thomas's long lists of memorabilia and his more florid poetic passages.

The supporting cast, while uneven, has some standouts. As Uncle Gwyn, Patrick Sweet has trouble containing his infectious energy under his tightly buttoned coat. During a ghost-story sequence that needs pruning, he nevertheless prances about during a song-and-dance about "a heap of jelly in a barn / And bats that have a human brain." It's the evening's most upbeat number.

Katy Fitzpatrick, a junior at Lewis & amp; Clark High, displays a powerful voice and lots of mischievous energy as bratty cousin Glenda. As one of the drowsy uncles, John Dorwin adds comedy with his obsessive, anti-capitalist rants.

In a rehearsed production, spontaneity isn't easy to reproduce, and the extended Thomas family onstage falls into the trap of trying too blatantly to appear convivial. The family-gathered-'round-the-hearth scenes are less convincing for this reason. Still, you can almost overhear one tipsy aunt muttering to another in the aftermath of a kitchen disaster: Another drop of sherry, don't you know, and thoughts of how badly the turkey got burnt will surely vanish.

At the conclusion, Phillips opts for a simple effect -- singers in a single line, no harmonizing, just the one melody -- and a lovely glitter-snow effect spotlights the joys of this "town in the land / And the land in the world / And the world in the sky. / And the soft snow falls all around, all around."

Sometime during your Christmas shopping frenzy, while madly rushing to the nearest mall, consider calming yourself with Dylan Thomas' memoir of melodies past. At the Civic, you can put your arm around the little Dylan or Glenda in your life, whisper about joys that were "not made on earth," and let the soft snow fall all around, all around. Let the soft snow fall all around.

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