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FAU's Theater Company Returns With A Mastodon — And The Mammoth Task Of Keeping Audiences Safe

Actress Gaby Tortoledo poses with Jess the Mastodon during rehearsal for Theatre Lab's "The Impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons"
Talia Jaeger
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What? No 'trunk-sized' mask? Actress Gaby Tortoledo & Jess the Mastodon during rehearsal for Theatre Lab's "The Impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons"

Florida Atlantic University's Theatre Lab returns to in-person shows, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with a play featuring a huge mastodon puppet.

If ever there was a time that Florida kids needed to escape from reality through the magic of live theater — it’s now.

In recent weeks, pediatric COVID-19 cases have been on the rise, mostly due to the delta variant of the coronavirus. Kids, parents and teachers looking forward to a peaceful start to the school year are now dealing with quarantines and legal battles over mask mandates.

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And children’s theaters — like so many other performing arts venues — face the challenge of how to safety return to in-person programming.

"We've had a lot of places to go for resources", says Matt Stabile, producing artistic director for Theatre Lab, Florida Atlantic University's professional resident theater company.

This weekend, Theatre Lab's Heckscher Theatre for Families will present the world premiere of Rachel Teagle's “The Impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons."

The opening marks the company's first in-person performance since last year, when the pandemic halted most of South Florida's live shows.

Stabile says the company is working closely with FAU to ensure audience safety. The first step was moving from Theatre Lab's usual 95-seat space to the school's University Theater, which seats 400 people; the theater will limit audience size to 1/3 capacity.

As per FAU guidelines, guests are expected to wear a mask indoors. In addition, a block of empty seats will be sectioned off for any theater patron who wants even more physical distancing.

"We have a COVID compliance officer working on the show with us who's there to set guidelines [and] make sure we follow best practices," Stabile said.

The show is also the centerpiece of Theatre Lab's educational outreach program for young audiences.

Teagle's play looks at what happens once all childhood dreams come true. The world is suddenly replete with ballerinas, astronauts and super-spies.

"But our main character, Jess — she wanted to be a mastodon," Stabile said.

The offbeat comedy features a mastodon puppet, standing 9 feet by 12 feet, built by South Florida puppet designer, Jim Hammond — former puppet-master for Broadway’s "The Lion King."

For Stabile, the show is a perfect example of the kind of material the company looks for; plays with important themes that don't talk down to kids — and that have a "wow factor" for children and adults alike.

"I think this show really speaks to a lot that's very important when a child is forming their identity," he said. "And for us, as adults — you are not your job. You can be happy being who you are."

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IF YOU GO:

THEATRE LAB AT FAU
A Heckscher Theatre for Families Production
The world premiere of “The Impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons” by Rachel Teagle
Directed by Matt Stabile

University Theatre on FAU's Boca Raton campus
Sept. 4-19
Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Sundays at 3 p.m.

Ticket and schedule at: www.fauevents.com