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Portland Man Stages Plays — With Action Figures

A typical Saturday night in Portland features a varied lineup of concerts, movies and restaurants. But, at an intimate event in the living room of a house in the city's West End neighborhood, something unusual is happening. About 20 people are sitting on couches and folding chairs, watching Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar." But it's not the one you think you know.

What makes this rock opera different are the actors, about 40 of them. They're all plastic action figure dolls. And they're performing on a miniature stage.

A six-inch tall Jesus sings in the second act, right before he gets arrested. Mary, Judas and the disciples are there, too. But what makes this performance different is that one person is singing all the songs from behind a curtain to the left of the stage. The same person also manipulates all the action figures.

"What I do is I use these six-inch 'characters' — or dolls, or action figures, rather — and my Mom and I dress them up and we perform these musicals," says David Worobec, 25, the creator of Tophat Toy Theater, a salon-style dinner theater that he and his Mom host in their Victorian home in Portland. Worobec is also the man behind the curtain. He memorizes every single part of his productions. So far, he has performed "South Pacific," "Oklahoma!," "Sweeney Todd," "Little Shop of Horrors," Les Miserables" and "Jekyll & Hyde," among others.

"Trying to control the lighting, the music, the characters, the curtains, the everything takes a lot of concentration. And before the show, I don't eat," he says.

Worobec graduated from The Boston Conservatory with a focus on opera and classical music. He has performed with the Boston Bel Canto Opera, Boston Conservatory and at toy theater festivals. He's a baritone, but has a vocal range that he uses to sing over a backup music track — all combined with a full cast and elaborate set that his Mom, Polly Plimpton, helps design.

"One of great discoveries was what he uses as spotlights," Plimpton says. "They are actually little clip-on things that you would put on a hat if you were out camping. We have dozens of those. When we discovered those, we were really excited, because they are great for little spotlights. And he really zeros right in on a character."

Worobec's approach to characters has also come a long way from when he used his toy "Star Wars" and Disney figures. Although he still uses action figures that audiences recognize — such as Beetle Juice and Cruella De Vil for "Les Mis" — he now has thousands of characters that he has bought on eBay. He says that if they have nice facial expressions and a lot of personality to them, he'll cast them in his shows. They get hair, costumes and makeup, just like real actors.

Trudi Cohen, a member and of New York City-based Great Small Works Theater Company, which puts on international toy theater festivals, says Worobec is re-inventing a historic theater form.

"Toy theater was a form of home entertainment in the 19th century," Cohen says. "It was a kind of Victorian parlor entertainment, where you could buy a kit and assemble it at home, which would create a model of the live stage."

Cohen says toy theater declined as movies and TV became common, but that it has been rediscovered in the past ten years.

Already, Mayo Street Arts, a nonprofit arts organization in Portland, is hoping to book some of Worobec's productions — which, by the way, are not intended for children.

Pete Faris of Portland has seen two of Worobec's musical productions and he says he can't help but be drawn into the world of toy theater, even, he says, empathizing with toy characters that Worobec brings to life on-stage.

"He sings the entire thing — all the parts," Faris says. "That tends to be the most incredible part of this whole thing."

Performing theater this way, says Worobec, gives him a chance to perform characters he normally wouldn't be cast in.

"What I love about intimate theaters is the closeness that you get with the action of the characters," Worobec says. "I've had people say they get lost in the stories and forget that its all miniature actors — or action figures — and it's all me."

An intimate setting it is, since only 23 people fit into the dining and living room at a time. So far, the guest list has been all word of mouth and you have to RSVP by email. The performance includes dinner before the show and dessert at intermission for $20.