Sixty-five years ago, a mostly silent short film from France called “The Red Balloon” captured the enchanting magic of childhood for the entire world. The spirit of that timeless classic lives on in the Mile Square Theatre Company’s family-friendly production of “Balloonacy,” with a hilarious yet touching tour de force performance by MST’s former artistic director, Chris O’Connor.
O’Connor founded Mile Square Theatre in 2002 and, for nearly 20 years, guided it as its artistic director. He also directed and starred in dozens of MST plays. He returns in the first “Theater for Family and Young Audiences” production at MST since the onset of COVID, and youngsters from pre-school toddlers through elementary school students in their tweens will be absolutely delighted by this wordless 40-minute pantomime, which includes a post-performance Q&A session with O’Connor and assistant stage manager Melissa John.
O’Connor has ably performed in dramas and comedies, both at MST and other theaters over the years, but “Balloonacy” taps into skills he nurtured as a young man, studying pantomime and clowning. The “Red Balloon” film tells the story of a lonely boy befriended by a red balloon that seems to have a mind of its own. “Balloonacy” takes that story into the present; with the boy now an old man in a small apartment, alone on his birthday. As if by magic, the red balloon reappears at his window, and wonderment ensues.
Although “Balloonacy” is technically a solo show, the play also showcases two behind-the-scenes talents: The aforementioned Melissa John, who performs the offstage magic that allows the balloon to appear in unlikely places throughout the apartment, and music and sound designer Carl Riehl, who composed and performed the clever pre-recorded score that plays behind O’Connor’s physical antics.
Using, for the most part, an accordion to evoke the feel of a French bistro, Riehl’s music punctuates and informs the entire play, from a French-ified take on “Happy Birthday” to passages that help communicate the old man’s emotions — chagrin, loneliness, astonishment and, most of all, joy.
The play, which runs 40 minutes and moves quickly, suits even the youngest attention spans. From the moment he steps on stage, O’Connor breaks the fourth wall and engages the audience, allowing children to shout warnings and directions, becoming part of the play.
With pantomime practically extinct and circus clowning in sharp decline, I suspect this production may represent many children’s first exposure to these art forms, and O’Connor does a masterful job selling the story with just his body, hands and facial expressions. Judging from the nearly nonstop laughter that rocked the theater at the performance I saw, children today still find a baggy-pants comic sitting on a cupcake or taking a pratfall or pushing against imaginary wind as funny as they did when Marcel Marceau or Charlie Chaplin did it many generations ago.
In the post-show talkback session, a girl asked the perfect first question: “Why are you so funny?” O’Connor patiently explained that long before he came to Hoboken to form MST, he studied mime and clowning, and had always wanted to return to those crafts.
A great many children (and their parents) in the next few weeks will be very glad he did.
Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken presents “Balloonacy” through May 21; visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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