Not your typical child’s play

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Emma Buchanan stars as Ariel in the Merely Players-Durango Performing Arts Company collaborative production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” In back are Anne Chase as Scuttle and Boone Grigsby as Sebastian the crab.

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

Given their reputation and track record, it’s not surprising that Merely Players’ Mona Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford’s production of “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” is as professional a production as one will see of a children’s play. But this time, Ford, the technical director and set design wizard of the local theater troupe, has outdone himself.

“I have been really busy the past couple of weeks,” Ford said Monday in between weekend stagings of the theatrical adaptation of the Disney film adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story.

Durango High School sophomore Emma Buchanan stars as Ariel, the mermaid who chooses love in the form of her Prince (DHS junior Parker Buccowich) over life eternal. Wood-Patterson cast strong, experienced leads in a mostly younger children’s production.

Happily accepting any of the foibles that come with a cast ranging from fourth to 12th-graders, this production of “Mermaid” is a visual spectacle, and it’s because of Ford’s handiwork.

Those familiar with his work might still be impressed by the construction of the Prince’s ship, which dominates the Durango Arts Center Theatre when illuminated.

But it is Ford’s puppets that steal the show and add an animated film effect to the stage production. With almost no puppet-making experience, Ford taught himself how to do it. His creations rival the late Jim Henson’s.

“Like all my theater stuff, I just figured it out as I went along. It’s a mystery to me, too,” Ford said. “The kids were very excited to get their hands on them. When I brought some of them in, I didn’t realize the kids would be so small. I said ‘They’re as big as you are.’ My goal was to make them really lightweight, so that was a good choice because some of those kids have to wear them.”

Ford said, ironically, the amateurism of a kids’ play was the ideal test lab for his flock of puppets, which include frogs, seahorses, fish and other sea creatures.

“They were amazing,” he said of his young cast and crew. “With learning music, dancing, blocking and acting, we threw the puppets in on top and they jumped on it. I’m not sure adult actors would’ve been so jolly about it.”

Thursday’s performance will be a fundraiser for Merely Players. Ford said the troupe, as do most community theater companies nationwide, operates each year at a deficit.

Ticket sales account for about 60 percent of Merely Players’ annual budget, with the balance coming from grants, sponsorships and donations.

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