Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Uncle Wiggily at TNC by Edmond Chibeau

The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors
Book & Lyrics by Laurel Hessing
Direction and Choreography by Crystal Field
Music Composed and Arranged by Arthur Abrams
Theatre for the New City (NY) March 2-25, 2007
Reviewed by Edmond Chibeau

“We will build again!” is the final line of The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily by Laurel Hessing, directed by Crystal Field at TNC.

It is an appropriate conclusion because it is what the play has been building toward from the very beginning. The line works, it not only offers a sense of closure to the play but sends us out of the theatre with a purpose. It encourages us and our children to build, to rebuild, and to take moral social action.

Uncle Wiggily Longears is a character created by Howard Roger Garis. Garis had a good ear and a facility for turning out children’s literature. He wrote under contract for the Stratemeyer Syndicate and turned out titles for the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift among others. His most famous and most artistic creation was the series of gentle stories about Uncle Wiggily and Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy. It is this set of stories that playwright Laurel Hessing continues in her parable of the homeless rabbit and muskrat.

The play is framed by the story of a little girl, Merrily, who loses touch with her family during the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The girl is sent to stay in New York and dreams the story of Uncle Wiggily Longears and Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, the homeless rabbit and muskrat who seek refuge in New York’s Central Park. Among the creatures she meets are two homeless hawks that have been evicted from their home on posh Fifth Avenue.

The play places recent history in the context of a fairy tale. There really are two hawks who were nesting on a high-rise apartment building at 927 Fifth Avenue. They really were chased from the building and after protests from concerned New Yorkers they were allowed to return. There really is a city called New Orleans that suffered a calamitous hurricane and flood that destroyed homes and separated families. The fairly tale format allows children the opportunity to fold ethical considerations into their world view, and allows grown ups to distance themselves emotionally from the tragedy through the intermediation of a child’s fantasy world. That emotional distance allows us to dispassionately consider where responsibility lies.

Hessing writes with an understanding of the original stories and a good sense of dramatic narrative. The script of Uncle Wiggily is not an outline for improvisation but a work of dramatic literature that has its own structures, meanings, and lines of development.

Sometimes a director is afraid that the book will overpower the production. A brave director who is confident in her abilities will prefer a strong book. The script then becomes a source of power in the collaboration among the various contributors to the production. It is obvious from this production that Crystal Field loves literature and has enough faith in her own abilities as a director that she is willing to embrace a play with a strong literary component and demanding production requirements.

Field knows how to direct a complex production. The blend of techniques flows together and points to a single theme. This musical play teaches compassion.

Crystal Field and TNC are known for their commitment to a theatre of social action. The play could have been directed as an indictment of the governmental structures that failed and continue to fail the homeless throughout the world. That remains an understated implication but the main theme is compassion. The piece is about compassion for the emotionally and physically displaced and the sense of loss and desperation that they must feel.

The director, Crystal Field mixes street theatre with children’s theatre and manages to avoid the pitfalls of both forms. She takes the best techniques of both genres and blends them into an aesthetic whole that is satisfying to both adults and children.

Street theatre often becomes strident and self-righteous. The problem with children’s theatre is that it is often cloying and too cute for words. Field skillfully navigates between the Scylla and Charybdis of saccharine sweetness on the one side and abrasive moralizing on the other.

The script is literate and compelling. The directing is creative and compassionate. The production is both complex and direct. The story is entertaining and teaches a moral lesson.

This is the kind of theatre that makes the city new; over and over again.

More than 30 actors and 5 musicians make up a cast with many different skills. Arthur Abrams is a veteran of TNC his music for this show is an upbeat and sensitive response to the lyrics and moods of the script. Set Designer Donald Brooks creates a beautiful shape for the stage that is both organic and dramatic. Masks by Candice Burridge and puppets by Morgan Eckert, Momo Feix and Spica Wobbe are an integral part of the production and are designed to be “playable” as well as visually arresting. The show is a complex undertaking; Production manager Suki Weston and Stage Manager Adrian Gallard must have worked their brains to a singed frazzle trying to keep the various performers and inanimate elements of the production on time and in place. Children love this show. Take a child to see it.