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It’s always a tricky thing when one wants to look at youth-oriented theatre. On one hand, we enter seemingly pre-programmed to lower our expectations; to think of it as nothing more than a game put on by kids too young to understand the complexities of the characters they’re portraying. On the other hand, you’re looking at something into which these kids poured their hearts and souls; something that may enlighten and delight their peers; something that may ignite a spark within these kids that lasts a lifetime.

But how does one review it? Well, the very nature and name of youth theatre means a potential lack of adult refinement. As such, some leeway should be given in one’s critique, especially in regard to performances. I try my best to avoid talking about young performers at all – even in “adult” productions – unless something particularly stands out. I was one these kids’ age, and that was when my love of performance was sparked. If anything, I’d always encourage them to keep learning the craft, so long as it’s something they enjoy.

That leaves only the work itself. It has to stand on its own and be scrutinized like any other, be it a classic work or something written for a particular young cast and/or audience. I recently saw two shows that match each of those descriptions. Thankfully, I was neither the oldest or youngest on or off the stage, but I paid attention to audience reactions. Having been on similar stages at a young age, I know the performers were paying close attention, too.

Macbeth at Gritty City Rep programme

“Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.”

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, Sc. 1

It’s easy to see why one of The Bard’s most famous tragedies is popular in schools: it’s got a lot of the things youngsters want to see in a production – murder; witchcraft; betrayal; madness; encouragement from one’s spouse (even for a morally reprehensible act). Such was likely the reasoning when Oakland’s youth theatre, Gritty City Rep, decided to stage the play. Transplanting the action from Scotland to Haiti (during the reign of Henri Christophe), the production recalls Orson Welles’ famous “Voodoo Macbeth” production from 1936.

Vodou is central to this production as well, with it seeming to represent the voice of the common people. Though Western media has demonized religions like Vodou and Yoruba (which, sadly, isn’t surprising, given that they’re of African origin), director Lindsay Krumbein makes the wise choice on the invigorating power practitioners feel (not unlike Christians who “catch The Holy Ghost”). The three “weird sisters” will occasionally become a group of seven, who sing and dance in a way that seamlessly integrates Shakespeare’s text. The famous “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene lends itself so well to the Caribbean dancing, one would almost think it had been written with that in mind.

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Equally impressive is Casey Fern’s elaborate set. Incorporating two winding staircases, foliage, a spacious balcony, and a working fountain (into which the Vodoun characters drop dry ice to create the boiling mentioned in their famous rhyme), the set is more visually complex than those of most “adult” productions I’ve seen of late. And the bloody, dead swine hanging on the stage-right wall doesn’t hurt either. Fern also designed the lighting scheme that, like Krumbein’s direction and costuming, do well to compliment the young performers.

If there’s one place where the production stumbles, it’s in the transitions. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is one that easily lends itself to streamlining in a way that doesn’t take away from the overall plot. Though Krumbein appears to have done so here, she seemed to want to compensate by adding in transitional scenes that go on for far too long. In fact, many of the transitions could be dropped entirely by amalgamating several small “scenelets” into one or two larger scenes.

Still, blessed with a young cast that easily takes on Shakepeare’s prose with nary a flub (prose that often switches on a dime, from English to Haitian-French), the production has far more going for it than against it. It’s a good example of how his words still retain power and relevance hundreds of years later, and how well young performers and audience members can appreciate those words – hopefully, not for the last time.

GRADE:                B-

Macbeth is schedule to run until the 27th of May at The Flight Deck in Oakland.
It runs roughly 2 hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Fly Guy at BACT programme

“Flies purify the air, and plays–the morals.”
– Anton Chekov, Letter to A.P. Chekhov, 11 April 1889

Most of what I’ve written above alludes to young performers in theatre. The following show is more of the “children’s theatre” mold, where mostly-adult performers stage a show for a very young audience. Reviewing such a show means I don’t need to have the level of restraint I exercise for a show with young performers, even with a show for which I’m not the intended audience. Having said that, Bay Area Children’s Theatre hasn’t garnered such a beloved reputation by simply putting on shows to distract toddlers.

Their latest show is the world premiere of Fly Guy, Austin Zumbro’s adaptation of Tedd Arnold’s book series of the same name. The story is that of an elementary school student named Buzz (Benjamin Nguyen), whose best friend – the eponymous Fly Guy (Dominic Dagdagan) – is an actual fly. They do everything together. But not a lot people approve of the friendship, telling Buzz that “Flies are pests, not pets!” Yet, he finds a kindred spirit when he meets new student Liz (Katie McGee) and her winged pet, Fly Girl (Anne Norland). Will Buzz and Liz protect their flying friends, or will the world squash their friendship for good?

Fly Guy at BACT still

CLOCKWISE: Fly Girl (Anne Norland), Fly Guy (Dominic Dagdagan), Buzz (Benjamin Nguyen), Liz (Katie McGee). Photo courtesy of Bay Area Children’s Theatre

If there’s one aspect of this production that most stood out to me after seeing it, it was Martin Flynn’s set. It takes a great deal of skill to pull off the look of a coloring book – or, in this case, the illustrations of Tedd Arnold – but Flynn’s set pieces truly look as if the books’ pages had been enlarged, cut out, and stood upright. Even Joan Howard’s big-eyed puppets of Fly Guy and Fly Girl evoke their literary counterparts. Though I’m not terribly familiar with the book series, it looks to be a lot of fun to put on its feet.

The cast all seem to be having fun with their over-the-top characters. I’m almost surprised that the choreography (by Michael Muhammed) didn’t include asking the kids in the audience to join in. Austin Zumbro’s songs are catchy and easy to sing along to, both important when you’re writing for children. Though the conclusion of the story feels anti-climactic, the story proper maintains a steady momentum throughout.

It all makes for a show that adults won’t find irritating, and that kids will still be buzzing about after they’ve left the theatre.

GRADE:                B

Fly Guy runs until the 11th of June, with the remaining performances at the theatre of the Children’s Creativity Museum in SF’s Yerba Buena Gardens.
It runs roughly 2 hours with a single 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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