Mr. Rogers enchants the Phillips neighborhood at In the Heart of the Beasts' latest

Bruce Silcox

Bruce Silcox

On paper, nothing sounds more boring than a play about what a great guy Fred Rogers was. Who’s ever had a bad word to say about the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, though, has crafted a show that’s not only far from boring, it’s deeply moving.

In the works for over two years, Make Believe Neighborhood both tells the story of Fred Rogers and dramatizes the ways his values are being put into action right in the theater’s Phillips neighborhood. There’s even aerial video of the area, intercut with video of a Lake Street cardboard model a la the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

The play was directed by Bart Buch, created and performed in collaboration with artists including revered puppeteer Masanari Kawahara. The artists have realized no fewer than 13 models of Mister Rogers in various sizes—including larger-than-life-sized heads, which would be creepy if the TV legend wasn’t portrayed with such a sense of wonder and reverence.

The show unfolds in a series of vignettes that alternate tales about the actual Fred Rogers with the stories of neighborhood residents. The visually inventive production incorporates video precisely mapped by programmer Kevin Springer, projected onto set elements like giant building blocks and a model fish tank.

We learn about Rogers’ childhood with caring adults (“Look for the helpers”), about his interests in music and art, and about the way he incorporated messages of peace into his program during the Vietnam and Cold War eras. Each story has a distinctive look and style, deploying puppets and props that entrance the eye just as Rogers’ own did.

The same creative approach is used to tell neighborhood stories like that of Wayne Bugg, who manages the St. Vincent De Paul thrift store. Bugg and his customers are portrayed as lamps with faces cut into their paper shades, which rotate to reflect the characters’ changing moods.

It’s all united by a heartbreaking and endearing soundscape created live by Martin Dosh. Along with keyboards, percussion, and other instruments, Dosh samples Rogers compositions like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” and “It’s You I Like” as newly performed by a wide range of voices. (Credited collaborators include Sylvan Esso, Andrew Bird, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Jayanthi Kyle.)

The juxtaposition of “make believe” puppetry with real-life stories is extraordinarily poignant, and it all comes together at the show’s beautifully surreal conclusion, as the local and national blend into the international and even the cosmic. Bring some tissue, especially if you’ve been disheartened by the hateful “America first” rhetoric now filling the airwaves. What would Lady Aberlin say if she heard that coming from King Friday?

Make Believe Neighborhood
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
612-721-2535; through February 25