Don’t be reluctant to befriend ‘Dragon’ at Children’s Theatre

A stagehand tugs a rope, and the moon rises with a creaking sound. Footlights hide in overturned buckets, sending shafts of illumination across the stage.

We sit like spectators in Elizabethan England, and our surroundings at ImaginOn seem far away indeed. “The Reluctant Dragon” shows us both how theater is made and what theater can be: elemental, joyful, humane and as topical as the “Not in my back yard” sign a character hangs near the edge of a village square.

The interloper he’s trying to repel is the flying lizard of the title, a gentle creature who writes poetry, paints watercolors and wants only to settle in an English town where he can make friends. He’s the most impressive combination of wood, wire and foam I’ve seen at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, but the most important thing about him is his big, easily bruised heart. (He’s so large four people animate him; Mark Sutton provides the erudite voice.)

A local lad (Nicholas Stephens, making a first-rate debut) tries to explain the creature’s good intentions to everyone he meets, including professional dragon-slayer St. George (David Warwick, also making a welcome debut). The play’s point, of course, is that we fear unknown neighbors until we see what we have in common with them – something Charlotteans seem to need to relearn regularly.

CTC artistic director Adam Burke takes risks in the second production he’s directed for his new employers. (“Miracle on 34th Street” was the first.)

He lets actors speak in Sussex accents, which may prove tricky for young ears. (The youngest ears shouldn’t be there: The dragon startled wee ones Saturday, and they never settled down.) And he challenges us to use our imaginations, rather than fleshing out every concept with elaborate special effects.

Yet the audience stayed with him. Its pleasure during the battle, which takes place as shadow puppetry, proved the basic elements of great theater never fail.