'Cinderella': Old story kicks high in new shoes

Few things in live theater yield as much satisfaction as seeing nutty guys whack each other with long rubber breadsticks. Whether you were nearing 60 or closer to 6, as most of the Thursday audience at "The Commedia Cinderella" was, belly laughs rolled forth when the men started to swing.

Tarradiddle Players always know how to keep elementary schoolers focused, but Lane Riosley's play isn't just an exercise in physical comedy. It taught this crowd a little something about life and, in an unobtrusive way, prepared kids for a lifetime of playgoing.

As with all of Tarradiddle's commedia dell'arte shows, this is a play within a play: We meet the troupe and see actors assume roles. When clever Columbina (Leslie Ann Giles) and Rosetta (Darlene Parker) restrain preening Punchino (Nick Kern) and Arlequino (Stephen Seay), they provide an example: Little girls in the audience will need to be capable and responsible when dealing with silly, exuberant boys.

And when Punchino and Arlequino quibble about role assignments and end up hugging after the breadstick brouhaha, they remind us that friends can quarrel and make up and be even closer than they were.

The script doesn't include any of the darkness or violence in various retellings of the story: The stepmother (Seay) gets annoyed when people fail to call her wicked, and the stepsisters are gargoylish rather than truly nasty. Nobody gets eyes pecked out or toes lopped off when trying on the slipper.

Steven Ivey directs in suitably broad fashion: There's even a "Young Frankenstein" joke about a shifting hump. But the tale itself is just a departure point. Youngsters know what's going to happen; the important thing is how, and that's where this show broadens minds.

As the kids watch characters dash behind a backdrop to change costumes and pluck props from offstage, they learn about the mechanics of theater. As they see Seay and Kern camp around in drag, they realize they have to chuck preconceptions about characters out the window. As Cinderella turns into a princess onstage - very obviously, behind someone who is dressing her - young theatergoers learn to use their imaginations and pretend they don't see that dresser at work.

At one point, skeptical Cinderella tells the fairy godmother she doesn't believe in magic. (She actually half-believes, so she gets half a ball gown.) The fairy tells her that, unless Cindy believes fully, the magic spell can never take hold. If there's a truer explanation of theater itself, I don't know it.