By John Chmaj
Discover Arts blogger
Creating theater that engages both children and adults is a special challenge, particularly in today’s ADD world of instant electronic entertainment. The story, stage and performances must be clear, interesting and unusual enough to capture and maintain the attention of young and old. When this happens, the magic of theater takes hold and the entire audience has a special shared experience. “Wind in the Willows” at Valley Center Stage in North Bend achieves this rare and magical effect. Its playful and energetic performances keep young audiences enthralled. At the same time the deep engagement of the actors brings light and life to well-known characters sufficient to entertain any age, and even provide a few moments of honest reflection.
The Story Theater version of “Wind in the Willows” is a special brand of theatrical performance, scripted by Paul Sills, the son of Viola Spolin, the matriarch of improvisational theater. Story Theater puts the players in charge of both the narration and the action – the characters both reflect on and engage in the action, providing all action and commentary simultaneously. Sills’ script follows the full original written story of human-like animals living in society in ‘the Wild Wood’, including many unusual and touching moments as the characters act, react, and reminisce with each other. The show, like the story, is at once silly and sincere, playful and poignant, leisurely paced yet intense. As with the original story, the plot and characters are clear to anyone of any age – it’s how the characters work through it that makes the experience interesting and special. And this is where the cast of VCS works its magic. Each character has an energy and focus that brings the show to life, and working in concert they create a compelling momentum and continuity that is a trademark of fine Story Theater performances.
Director Gary Schwartz, himself the foremost living exponent of the works and methods of Viola Spolin, brings an intimate understanding of the Story Theater style to “Wind in the Willows”. It is a style that demands everything from its players. There are almost no props, simple costumes, many actors flow in and out playing multiple parts, and those onstage must create each new set from their own improvised interactions and representations. The resulting treatment is sparse, perhaps even a bit austere, but as such creates the most visceral and direct form of theater – that of the actors creating the entire reality before the audience. Very quickly ones’ mind gives in to the fact that the actors ARE the show, and ones’ attention hones into their every gesture and expression to build the surrounding reality.
It is at this point that the true magic of Story Theater happens: our own minds begin to supplement the reality proposed by the on-stage interactions. We begin to SEE Mole and Badgers’ underground apartments, SMELL the musty moistness of Rat’s river, and CAREEN with Toad down dangerous highways. WE become part of the action, filling in with our own imaginations all visuals and sounds needed to complete the scene. It is a dangerous proposition for a cast, as any slip of attention, inconsistent action, or missed timing can break the bubble of attention for the audience. But Gary and his cast have put together a clear and flowing performance that buoys us along gracefully in the current of the actors’ energy and engagement, as elegantly and surely as Rat’s boat in a good river current.
There are a few noteworthy performances, not surprisingly by the principals of the classic tale: Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger. John Cook is nothing short of masterful as the excitable, self-centered, reckless Mr. Toad. Toad, of course, is the center of the tale, both driving (no pun intended) and being swept along by events of his making. Mr. Cook’s Toad provides an endless set of wild expressions, expostulations and gesticulations that bring him to life. He manages to wring an amazing range of human emotions from Toad’s shallow and child-like character: at one moment ecstatic, then depressed, devious then repentant, crazed and resigned, passionate and pathetic. He manages to make Toad farcical and frightening at the same time, which is in fact his essence. Toad’s trio of friends are excellently characterized exactly as we would expect them. Greg Lucas shows both the worldy confidence of Ratty yet his yearning for something more. Robin Walbeck-Forrest plays the dependable yet naïve Mole with a subtle but powerful attention on everyone and everything around her. VCS regular Ed Benson brings the taciturn yet wise Badger to life as the guiding force to others and mature voice of reason and action.
There are some other fine vignettes in the performance. Taylor Davis gives a fabulous poetic song as Pan to open the show. This and three other songs in the show were composed by the pianist Michael Matlock - who it should be mentioned does an outstanding job rendering the impressionistic, lyrical score composed by William Bolcom for the original Sills script. Lisa Bryant provides another musical highlight in a solo song/dance about a bird yearning to stay home (until the winter frost argues otherwise). Another VCS regular, Craig Ewing, performs admirably in many required bit parts, and delivers what must be his finest soliloquy as an inveterate seaman regaling Rat with tales of the magic of foreign lands. Altogether the cast fairly shines throughout. As with any improvisational event (or perhaps it could be said of theater as a whole) the story flows because THEY believe in it. The focus and sheer joy of storytelling is what brings “Wind in the Willows” home to audiences of any age. And it is particularly impressive how well the cast of this production is able to hold and carry our complete attention within the demands of the Story Theater format. It is a truly virtuoso performance, one that, unlike Mr. Toad, can sustain a high level of emotions without going off the road! Highly recommended.
• Learn more about the show or buy tickets at http://www.valleycenterstage.org/