Little People on Big Adventures: ‘Judy Moody’ and ‘Inside Out & Back Again’ at BACT

Judy Moody...Treasure Hunt AND Inside Out... at BACT (composite banners)

*[NOTE: I’m posting reviews of shows I’ve over the past 2 ½ months. Life events kept me from reviewing them in a timely manner, but I feel that the ones that still linger deserve write-ups.]

It’s amazing how limitless everything seems when you’re young. In fact, the younger and smaller you are, the more infinite everything seems: Summer seems to stretch endlessly; school days take eternities; and walking a few blocks from your front door might as well be trekking across country. When you’re young, it’s usually about the journey, not the destination.

And yet, knowing the destination is likely to influence how much effort a little one puts into getting there on time. They’re more likely to have some pep in their step on their way to a playground or amusement park, but not so much for a trip to the dentist; and moving into a new home is rarely smiled upon when you consider all the friends you’re leaving behind. As adults, we take for granted that our large steps aren’t so easy for tiny feet.

Little people taking grand journeys are the focus of Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s two latest in-house & touring productions. Both are told from the point-of-view of young women who are not only taking trips but also find themselves at turning points in their lives. Though one trip is an amusing scavenger hunt and the other a cross-Pacific evacuation from war, both are reminders of how much a journey can changed depending on who’s with you.

Judy Moody...Treasure Hunt at BACT - poster

“Dad took a bite out of his garlic bread and asked Judy, ‘You’re not in one of your famous moods again, are you?’”
– Megan McDonald, Judy Moody gets Famous

I’ve often passed by Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody series in book stores when looking over things to buy my nieces and nephews. I never got around to cracking one open. Not that I was avoiding them, mind you, but an adult will more likely pick up a book they liked as a child. Given the popularity of the franchise (as seen in photos below, the books were on sale at the theatre), my knowledge – or lack thereof – of the books was a moot point. To date, the series consists of 15 Judy books about Judy, an additional four teaming Judy with her brother Stink (one of which was the basis for this play), 10 books based around Stink alone, and a live-action film based on Judy Moody and the Not-Bummer Summer.

It may not be a British wizard school or a post-apocalyptic death match, but McDonald’s carved out quite a little cottage industry for herself. How nice that my official introduction to the series be through theatre.

Judy Moody is a girl of grand hyperbole and laser-like determination. When her classmates recount their summers on the first day of school, Judy’s a bit jealous that they all got to go to fun places that got them all t-shirts (“with words on them!”). But there’s still time to have an adventure: a weekend trip with her parents to an island with the parents lands Judy and her brother Stink in the middle of a real live pirate treasure hunt (a tourist scavenger) hunt!

But Judy and Stink are the only ones after the prize: a nerdy pair of kids known only as “Tall Boy” and “Smart Girl” are just as determined to be the scavenger hunt champions. Will Judy and Stink figure out the clues before the nerdy kids? Will she a lettered t-shirt and the braggable envy of her classmates? And who says girls can’t be pirates anyway?

If one thing still vexes me about this show – and that’s saying a lot about a show featuring Morse code, zombies, and teacher named “Mr. Toad” (by the students) – it’s why there are so many ‘90s references? As I spent the pre-show flipping through the supplementary “Who is Judy Moody?” booklet included with the programme, I couldn’t help but notice that the music playing overhead was Snow’s “Informer,” followed by Technotronic’s “Shake that Body”. During the show proper, Judy briefly refers to herself as “Dr. Judy”, a phrase accompanied by the them music to Doogie Howser, MD. There’s also a fight scene set to both the Macarena and the music from The Matrix. Given that the first of McDonald’s books came out in 2000, I’m kinda lost as to why the producers of this show put such an emphasis on the preceding decade?

Still, the show itself is a delightfully goofy romp. It does drag a bit more than it should, but it’s bolstered by an enthusiastic (and colorblind) cast that revel in portraying over-eager kids who find immeasurable in some pretty disposable items. But when you’re young, you don’t really know what is and isn’t disposable. Anything can have value to you, so the quest to attain it really gets the heart pumping. What’s more, the fact that the play ends on an inspiring (if predictable) “material items aren’t what’s really important” note is a good one with which to leave kids.

But seriously, what was with all the ‘90s allusions?

GRADE:                                B

Judy Mood & Stink in The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt is scheduled to run until the 27th of May at the Bay Area Children’s Theatre in Berkeley and the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly under two hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets, information, and venue specifics please visit the production’s official site here.

Inside Out and Back Again world premiere at BACT - poster

“Oh, my daughter,
at times you have to fight,
but preferably
not with your fists.”

― Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again

Since I began reviewing BACT shows last year, I’ve come to expect a specific kind of output from company: over-the-top performances; interaction with the grade school audiences; maybe even the occasional – nay, frequent – talking animal. In other words, I’ve come to expect stories that are, for lack of a better term, “safe”.

Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s production of Inside Out & Back Again is not that kind of show. Yes, it’s appropriate for younger audiences, but it is not a whimsical tale – it is a heartbreaking immigrant’s tale of homeland violence, American racism, and the scars left by both. That the show does all of this is bold; that this theatre company does all of this without pandering to its young audience results in one of the single best shows I’ve seen in 2018.

Inside Out and Back Again world premiere at BACT - set

Set by Yusuke Soi. Photo by Me.

It seems as if everything in Hà’s life is out of her control: her food has to be shared with her mother and brothers; her games are cut short by soldier-enforced curfews; and now she has to leave everything behind as her mother smuggles she and her brothers out of war-torn Viet Nam to the United States.

What their mother sees as the opportunity to start a new life, the children see as trading one miserable experience for another. Though a much richer country than Viet Nam, the children find themselves in the middle of a culture where they don’t know the language and what little they do know comes in the form of racial epithets.

But Hà and her mother remain hopeful. When you’ve lost everything, what else do you have left?

There are moments of levity in this play, to be sure. From Hà playing with her brothers to one of the brothers idolizing Bruce Lee to Hà’s attempts at both learning English and making American friends, there are plenty of funny moments. None of those moments undermine the gravity of sadness that of the other parts of the story, just as that sadness doesn’t overpower the more jovial moments. Life is neither wholly sad nor happy, not fully triumphant nor tragic. The downside to experiencing such tragedy young is that it will stay with you, but the upside is that you’re young enough to mentally and physically heal from them.

I haven’t read the original novel, but Min Khang’s adaptation is poetic without being esoteric, and realistic – particularly in its handling of racism – without being preachy or condescending. As directed by May Liang with eye-catching sets by Yusuke Soi, audience members of all ages appeared to follow the story with the greatest of ease.

And it doesn’t hurt that it was very well-cast. I’m not familiar with the work of lead actor Krystle Piamonte, but she brings a heartbreaking warmth to the lead that would have failed in the wrong hands. I certainly hope to see her in more projects soon. Equally served in Benjamin Nguyen as, well, all of her brothers. It’s a bit hard to tell them apart visually, as there are few costume changes. It seems that every cast member of You for Me for You winds up playing refugees in subsequent roles, so too is it true of Kathryn Han. She’s great in the role of “Mother,” but I’d love to see her in something else. With actors Gabriella Momah and Samuel Barksdale as the two-person ensemble, the show has no shortage of talent both on and off the stage.

It can be good to have your expectations played with. BACT both met them with Judy Moody… and exceeded them with Inside Out…. I honestly hope they continue such experimentation, because it has payed off in a major way.

Childhood seems like it will last forever when you’re in the midst of it, but it ends in a heartbeat. One shouldn’t try to grow up too soon, but they shouldn’t be talked down to either. BACT has two shows that do neither, and we’re all the better for it.

GRADE:                                A-

Inside Out & Back Again is scheduled to run until the 27th of May at the Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s Second Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly one hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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