NOTE: This show has been canceled due to concerns surrounding COVID-19

An 8-year-old in a top hat walks into a newspaper interview – sounds like the start of a good joke, right?

Actually, no. Niko Jaspersen is the real deal. He plays Don Weasel in Cheyenne Little Theatre Players’ upcoming production of “The Wind in the Willows,” and if you ask him to describe his character, he will go into painstaking detail about various plot points, character relationships and even the monocle that he looks forward to the prop department adding to his wardrobe.

But what you really need to know is that he plays the villain of this all-youth cast of characters, and he’s digging it.

“I’m always trying to steal stuff,” he explained of his character with a wide grin on his face. “I did want to get (the part of) Don Weasel.”

Chauncy Hendon, 13, who plays Mole, expanded on the comical aspect of this when he asked us to imagine a common occurrence between Niko’s character and his own.

“Niko is supposed to eat me,” he said fairly matter-of-fact. “I would definitely tell people to come see it because of the humor of seeing a person who is three feet taller than the person he’s (supposed to be) scared of.”

(Editor’s note: These two actors are definitely not three feet apart in height. I’d guess more like one, but we’ll encourage their youthful imagination for now.)

It’s probably hard to understand how this all comes together. Director Jason Gilbert said the basic premise of “The Wind in the Willows” is that animals and people can be whatever they want to be, but this particular adaptation of the story focuses on a community of animals and how many of them feel that their world is being threatened – and they’re placing the blame on humans.

This not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor for climate change comes to life as the animals work together in an attempt to stop the damage and reclaim their environment.

“They devise a plan to put a seed in all the cars that are causing the problem, and in the mix of all of this, Toad has an automobile addiction,” Gilbert said. “He doesn’t want to stop the cars – he loves them, and he’s made some past enemies with the weasels who are out to take his house.”

There are a lot of conflicts at hand, but he said what’s particularly notable is how this production follows a group of critters through various stereotypical roles. Every animal (and thus every character) is assigned a specific stereotype that they have to represent – such as an all-business badger that nobody should mess with – and they have to embody that persona.

Getting a group of child actors to first understand the meaning of a stereotype, their significance and then how to portray one is a huge challenge, Gilbert said. But it’s also why he wanted to take on this job in the first place.

“The biggest thing that drew me to direct the show is directing kids,” he said. “I like to see them find a love of theater, to find something onstage. Also, honestly, they grow a lot more visibly than adults do. You put adults onstage, and they’re pretty set in their ways, but kids are really teachable, so that’s a huge draw for me.”

Gilbert directed CLTP’s youth production of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” two years ago, so he has some experience working with young actors. But this show is only his second large-scale production working with such moldable minds.

Other than the chance to help children improve their acting ability, Gilbert was attracted to this show because he grew up watching the claymation version of Arnold Lobel’s “Toad and Frog Are Friends,” and he loves the message that even the smallest of critters can make an impact.

For Chauncy, the play’s message is fairly clear-cut: help animals and don’t pollute the Earth. And the point of his character Mole, he added, is to offer a timid, innocent personality who helps move the plot along. But rehearsing the production has realistically taught him more about the art of performing than saving the planet.

“I’ve definitely learned how to stay in character, because (previously) I had trouble breaking it when I didn’t know my lines,” Chauncy said.

He’s also learned how to get into costume faster, continued to improve his talent for memorizing lines quickly and become much more open to another educational source.

“You learn from older people (in the cast), but you definitely learn from the younger people, because they will not hold back from saying ‘that was too quiet, you’re not very great up there, etc.,’” he said with a laugh. “The older kids will always help you with lines, but never tell you that you’re horrible, and sometimes that’s what you need.”

Niki Kottmann is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at nkottmann@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3135. Follow her on Twitter at @niki_mariee.

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