The most recent show from Children's Theater of Madison is titled "Too Many Frogs!"
But it might as well be "Plenty of Puppets!"
The production features the puppet-making magic of Madison's Monica Cliff, who created not one but three styles of hand-operated performers: shadow puppets made from cut-outs; rod puppets with expressive, hand-carved faces; and "Muppets"-style puppets fabricated from upholstery foam and fabric.
Each group helps to tell a different story within the tale of "Too Many Frogs!" Based on a popular children's book by Sandra Fenichel Asher, "Too Many Frogs!" takes place in the comfy tree trunk that is home to Rabbit, an avid reader who treasures order and predictability as much as he values books. When Froggie and friends exuberantly enter his world, Rabbit becomes overwhelmed but then learns an important lesson about the fun of sharing stories.
"Rabbit reads the stories, but Froggie is the one who brings everything alive with his wild imagination," said Cliff, whose puppets become progressively more elaborate as they act out the tales of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "The Elves and the Shoemaker" and "The Ugly Duckling" for Rabbit and Froggie.
The seven waggish puppets for "The Elves and the Shoemaker" took months to carve, paint, engineer and costume. Each one has to be operated by two puppeteers at a time.
Live actors are also part of the "Too Many Frogs!" cast.
Director Susan Nanning-Sorenson was at first concerned whether everyone in the audience, including those in the balcony, could see the puppets clearly, Cliff said. So the puppets' heads, made from Styrofoam covered with cheesecloth, were fashioned to be nearly human-sized.
Six adult puppeteers, several of them students from Edgewood College, operate the puppets "and in my opinion they do an amazing job," Cliff said. "It's not easy when you can't see yourself," since the puppeteers are kneeling behind a puppet stage out of sight from the audience.
"They have to practice a lot in front of a mirror ... to get a lot of personality out of the puppet. To me that is a little bit of the charm," she said. "Puppets are an amazing tool for comedy, drama and satire."
Originally from Zacatepec, Mexico, Cliff trained as a scenographer at the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She met her husband, who's from Madison, when he was working on a film and asked her online to design puppets for the production.
Her freelance work includes the larger-than-life puppets that have appeared over the years in CTM's "A Christmas Carol." Most recently, she designed puppets for the company's production of "Goodnight Moon."
Cliff's 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter are part of the reason she loves working in children's theater, she said.
"There is a lot of time that you put into every production," she said, pointing to a puppet. "And at the end I want to be able to say, 'Look, this is what I've been working on.'"