Sunday, November 8, 2009

ASF "Ferdinand the Bull"

This season's Alabama Shakespeare Festival "Intern Company" is taking the stage for the first time in the Octagon Theatre with a visually stunning production of Munro Leaf's children's classic "Ferdinand the Bull" under Nancy Rominger's direction. -- Adapted for the stage by Karen Zacarias, and with music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, the version expands the number of characters of Leaf's story, adding subplots that,while clever inventions, distract somewhat from the principal title character. We forget about him for much of the time.

Made famous first for its pacifist bias in 1936 -- Hitler & Franco hated it, while Gandhi admired it -- and later for the Disney film that garnered an Academy Award in 1938, "The Story of Ferdinand" introduced the world to Ferdinand, a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in a bullring. Despite taunting from the other bulls, and an accident that brings him into the corrida, Ferdinand sticks to his principles and refuses to fight. That's it, plain and simple...and a good message for young and old alike: "be true to yourself" and "not all brave people fight" are lessons for everyone.

There are many clever and humorous aspects in this adapted script and in the performances of the likeable cast. Duque Dodo [Ricardo Vasquez] speaks in an exaggerated Castilian accent, Cochina the Pig [Lauren Sowa] spouts Shakespeare, and there are numerous cliches like "bring home the bacon", "take the bull by the horns", and "high on the hog" that punctuate the dialogue and shift the focus away from Ferdinand.

Ferdinand [Matthew Baldiga] is urged by Cochina to behave like all the other bulls and take his rightful place of honor in the bullring, though she does not know that the bull gets killed at the end of the fight. And she believes that the right humans will recognize Ferdinand as the best bull. When she finds out, she tries to save her friend. Peaceful & quiet through it all, Ferdinand sits on a bee whose sting sends him into wild behavior that the humans misinterpret as ferocity, so they take him to fight. This episode went by so quickly that there was little time to respond to Ferdinand's pain before he was taken away.

Duquito Danilo [Michael Pesoli] is a counterpart to Ferdinand; he wants to be a flamenco dancer, but is too meek to thwart his father Duque Dodo's demands of becoming a famous matador, and he does want to please his father. -- Once in the ring, the most important fight he has is to fight for himself by dancing...and the Duque relents and praises his son's talent as a dancer. Ferdinand too goes back to the country to smell the flowers.

Spectacular costumes by Jeffrey Todhunter are a visual delight: colorful, authentic, and suitable for each character. And the set by Peter Hicks provides a bright landscape and a red-orange-yellow color pallet evoking the Spanish terrain; and a simple device transforms it into a bullring.

The lyrics to the songs are witty and further the plot, and the score suggests the Spanish culture.

Performances are endearing, and engage the audience -- even the little ones -- to interract with the dialogue.

There are dark moments that might frighten the very young; this play seems suitable for children 5-years of age and up.