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Noise and Garbage: Taking the Kids to See 'Stomp'
By Janis Cooke Newman
Four men wearing lime-green rubber gloves enter with kitchen sinks slung around their necks. Brushing their rubbered fingers against the metal ridges of the drain boards, they produce a rhythmic sound somewhere between a squeak and a shush. One by one, they pour water out of a pot, a bowl, a coffee mug, while tapping a spoon against the edge to create a series of rising scales. Finally, they straddle a metal bucket and unstop their sinks, letting the water drain out between their legs like they're peeing.
"Cool," says my 5-year-old son, Alex.
"Yeah, cool," agrees my 46-year-old husband, Ken.
In a world where children's theater too often means Barney on Ice or a perky gymnast in green tights, it's refreshing to find a show that both kids and grown-ups can like. That's Stomp, now playing in an open-ended run at San Francisco's Marines Memorial Theatre.
Stomp is all noise and movement, without any of that plot and dialogue stuff kids find so boring. In fact, Stomp has no dialogue at all. Instead, the eight performers make music by banging on matchboxes, broomsticks, the floor, even their bodies.
The original Stomp, which was created by two English street performers, premiered in London in 1991 and has won nearly every British theater award. Three years later, it opened at the Orpheum Theatre in New York. The New York production received an Obie, and is still running.
Although a road company of Stomp toured the U.S. in 1995, the current show at Marines Memorial is the first locally produced version outside of New York and London.
Stomp's set is industrial-urban-junkyard: corrugated steel walls and metal grids covered with traffic signs and abandoned car parts. The cast is young, and male and female. They dress in paint-spattered overalls and tattered baggy shorts, which make them look like people in a hipper, grittier Gap ad.
We stare in fascination as they creep onstage with rubber plungers in their hands. Taking turns, they suction the plungers to the floor and then yank them up, making a sound like cartoon raindrops falling into a pond. Listening, I remember how I used to sneak down to the basement and stick the toilet plunger onto the side of my mother's metal washing machine, for the satisfying sound it made when I pulled it off.
After plonking the plungers, the cast slides big garbage cans across the stage, producing a rasp that sounds exactly like Darth Vader breathing. Then they beat out an African rhythm with sticks that resemble giant Q-tips.
In another scene, the performers swing from body harnesses high above the stage, while drumming on metal pipes and street signs. It sounds like a clangier version of Tito Puente's Cuban orchestra.
Stomp is made up of a series of these quick scenes, each one featuring a different "instrument." This is great for kids, because if they lose interest in the crinkling newspapers, they're only a minute or so away from the rubber tubes.
In my husband's favorite scene, the performers lumber out like Frankensteins with black oil drums attached to their feet. In my son's favorite, three cast members take turns digging through a garbage bag, looking for trash with noise-making potential.
Seeing Alex transfixed by someone playing an empty Slurpee cup, I realize that what makes Stomp perfect for kids is that it's all about making noise and playing with garbage -- activities which must speak to some universal childhood impulse. (Who among us hasn't at some point in our lives tried turning two trashcan lids into cymbals?)
During the encore, we in the audience get a chance to test our own percussive skills. As the cast takes us through a complicated bit of chest slapping, I begin to suspect that my child has no sense of rhythm. However, on the way out of the building, he executes a tricky bit of syncopation with his Winnie-the-Pooh umbrella on the stone steps.
The next day, I catch my husband playing something that sounds vaguely Caribbean on a large plastic water bottle.
"I'm trying it out," he tells me, "for the kids at Alex's preschool."
"Uh-huh," I say, heading down to the basement with the laundry, picking up the plunger along the way.
If You're Planning to Go
Stomp is playing at the Marines Memorial Theatre, at 609 Sutter St. near Mason. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. Prices for the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday shows are $35 to $40. On Friday, Saturday, and the 3 p.m. show on Sunday, tickets are $40 to $45.
The good news is that at the Sunday 7 p.m. performances all seats are $25. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 877-771-6900, or online at www.tickets.com. Note: Marines Memorial is a fairly small theater -- we sat in the last row of the balcony and had no trouble seeing or hearing the show.
Parents and teachers should check out Stomp's web site, www.stomponline. com. Under "Percussion for Kids," you'll find a simple explanation of the theory behind Stomp, as well as Sound-Around activities children can do before and after going to the theater.