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Spooky Universe – Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW 

Remaining Performances:

Wednesday, July 13th, 8 p.m. Thursday, July 14th, 10 p.m. Saturday, July 23rd, 12 p.m.

They say: “How do you escape an invisible cage? A princess and a little bird find the answer together in this captivating shadow puppet fairy-tale. Adapted from the picture book by Alma Flor Ada and performed in Spanish and English.”

Derek’s Take: If your thoughts on “shadow puppetry” conjure disfigured recreations of “rabbits” and “dogs” sprung from inept hands, this elegant adaptation of The Malachite Palace will reset your expectations for the form. The story, a parable on matters of kid-freedom and companionship, tracks the bubbly wanderings of a bird – no, pajaro! – as it flits between a lonely princess’s chamber and the world of children and play beyond.

The crisp, 35-minute production deftly blends the shadow-boxed goings-on within the castle with “exterior” scenes performed with marionettes onstage. This contrast between the flat, largely black-and-white world of the palace, where the child’s minders smother her in material comfort but deprive her of life’s simple joys, and the three-dimensional, all-color puppet-utopia outside, highlight the princess’s crummy life. A window provides her only glimpse into an alternate existence, one punctuated with the sights and sounds of laughter, horseplay, and birdsong.

But the queen and her henchwomen object! That window exists not for wistful voyeurism, but to carry fresh air – para la salud! – into the home. So they plant shrubs to obstruct the view and muffle the sounds of childhood from afar. It’s a downer, sure, but soon a canary breezes into the palace, piquing the girl’s hopes for a playmate and a break from her daily routine. Her excitement triggers the play’s most beautiful and disquieting sequence, in which the castle’s snobby worrywarts surround the little bird and imprison it. With this the story heightens its central, if familiar question… Does the caged bird sing?

The puppetry isn’t always flawless, but the show’s few Dolemite moments – where shadowy fingertips pop unintended into view – hardly detract from the illusion on screen. In a sense, those wayward digits, on top of Wendy Nogales’s distinctive voice characterizations, lend an extra layer of humanity to a story that preaches sensitivity and inclusiveness. The effort’s all the more impressive, actually, when you consider that the four puppeteers are working in an area not much larger than a bath tub. Their movements, combined with the intricate cutouts backed by bright white light, bring life to the action in classic fashion.

The result is a simple, pretty production that, shockingly for Fringe, is suitable for the entire family. And if you manage to sneak into the Spooky Universe through its 16th Street entrance, past no discernible ticket booth, and down the stairs to a door labeled “Keep Doors Closed,” a curative to overwrought, high-concept summer entertainment awaits. But I recommend that you take the alleyway over to the official entrance and buy a ticket – The Malachite Palace is a show worthy of your patronage.

See it if: Your overstimulated rugrats need both a timeout and an introduction to Spanish.

Skip it if: You take your Fringe fare laced with sex and obscenity.