Sunday, September 26, 2010

ASF Interns: "the House at Pooh Corner"

Nancy Rominger's production of The House at Pooh Corner is a sweet, gentle, and utterly charming showcase of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's new Acting Intern Company.

Adapted by Bettye Knapp from the A. A. Milne classic, scenic designer Brave Williams transforms the Octagon Theatre into a cut-out picture book reminiscent of the original's illustrations, and Aaron Turner's clever and colorful costumes make for instant character recognition.

Running at about an hour -- not too long for young children's attention, and long enough for the parents who accompany them -- the action only occasionally lags while the story unravels.

Christopher Robin has called an emergency meeting of all his favorite companions, the stuffed animals surrounding him in his childhood, each with its own personality that makes them more alive in his imagination than any real-life character.

But, what is the emergency? Is it to build a house for Eeyore to stay warm in, or to escape the "roaring yellow animal" that is rampaging through the woods? -- No...Christopher Robin's emergency is that he is about to be sent "away to education", something he resists with all his might in order to remain with his playmates and not grow up [stay tuned to on this theme for Peter Pan that opens at ASF in November].

En route to Christopher Robin's inevitable departure -- one which he ultimately accepts -- the characters demonstrate how teamwork succeeds when adjustments are made to others' contributions, that change is a necessary element of growing up, and that lasting friendships are based on unquestioning love and accepting others for what they are.

This group of young actor-interns show evidence of becoming an ensemble, much like the characters they portray with simplicity and directness. They become the characters.

Corey Triplett's Winnie-the-Pooh, the "bear of very little brain", is gentle and unassuming, while Brett Warnke's take-charge Rabbit serves as a strong counterpoint. Tara Herweg [outstanding as Kanga] is a no-nonsense motherly figure, the "adult" voice of reason in the group who firmly but lovingly controlls her enthusiastic son Roo [Kevin Callaghan]; and Caitlin McGee is genuinely innocent as Piglet.

From his first moment on-stage, Seth Rabinowitz's portrayal of Eeyore, slow of movement, downcast of eye, and philosophically resonant of voice, captures the audience's heart.

Erik Gullberg plays three roles -- Early and Late Rabbits nicely contrasted in behavior and costume, and the pogo-sticking energetically loud Tigger, this last that could steal the show were it not for Gullberg & Company's generosity to one another that allows each to take focus appropriately.

Christopher Robin and Owl are played by Tyler Jakes, a clever choice of doubling, as Christopher Robin is reluctantly facing adulthood and Owl represents wisdom. Jakes shows each character distinctly -- the youthful internal conflict of the real boy is sensitively drawn, while the birdlike mannerisms and authoritative demeanor of Owl are clear opposites.

Children respond to the animated actors and are drawn into the action so much that responses from them to an on-stage question are delivered without hesitation. -- Adults can enjoy this too, though the dialogue frequently appeals on a grown-up level [Question: "What does 'organize' mean?"; Answer: "Delay!"], and songs that mimic Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" elicit an older generation's recognition and approval.

Watch for these actors in the upcoming ASF season. If this production of The House on Pooh Corner is any indication, their contributions should be eagerly anticipated.