Review: WILDE TALES: Stories for Young and Old

by Lynn on August 22, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Oscar Wilde
Adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig
Directed by Christine Brubaker
Designed by Jennifer Goodman
Lighting by Siobhán Sleath
Original music and sound designed by John Gzowski
Cast: Marion Day
Emily Lukasik
PJ Prudat
Sanjay Talwar
Jonathan Tan
Kelly Wong

A puzzling production because while it involves a chorus of children the stories are too literary and sophisticated in their meaning to be for kids. By the same token the performance style is so over done it can’t really be for adults either. A mish-mash.

The Stories. Playwright Kate Hennig took four Stories for Young and Old by Oscar Wilde and adapted them for the stage. They are:

The Happy Prince, about a statue that started out being grand but was stripped of its gold etc. and is now considered shabby by insensitive, greedy adults. A group of charity kids know the statue’s true value.

The Nightingale and the Rose in which a nightingale sacrifices herself for a student who is lovesick for a woman who ignores him. A story of selflessness, devotion and generosity.

The Selfish Giant is about a giant who built a wall around his garden to keep the kids out. One little boy is heartbroken because of this so the giant lifts him up to see the garden. The boy embraces the giant who sees the error of his ways and knocks down the wall. This generosity is rewarded by the kids who come to play there. The true identity of the little boy takes on a religious aura.

And there is a story that is used to link and thread through the others—The Remarkable Rocket about a conceited firecracker who is a blowhard telling everybody how great he is, but when it comes time to deliver and perform, he fizzles. It’s a theme of how egoism can thwart growth or development. Sounds familiar.

The Production. Jennifer Goodman’s set is simple and colourful. The props of birds and insects are clever and inventive. The colourful costumes for various characters are also eye-popping. Sanjay Talwar plays the Remarkable Rocket and wears an all encasing red outfit with a pointed head covering. Jonathan Tan plays a frog, among others, and wears a green frog costume with colourful flipper/frog’s legs. Mr. Tan is very agile and cheerful as the frog. The performances of the company are in the most rudimentary style of pedestrian kids theatre—dialogue is said very earnestly by the actors but in a sing-songy, declarative way. This over accentuates information and everything is presented as if it’s all full of wonder.

It doesn’t work. I don’t blame Kate Hennig who adapted the stories. She does it with imagination and care. And I can’t really fault Christine Brubaker’s direction because the original directive from the Artistic Director was to produce a show for children and adults using puppets etc. Again, I don’t think this was thought through properly. If the intention was to introduce kids to theatre or produce a show for them, then this isn’t it. And the child-like way of presenting the stories isn’t for adults either.

Presumably if parents/grandparents were involving kids in the workshop then the kids probably already go to the theatre. And again, the source material is really not kids’ fare. I think the total absence of kids in the audience would be proof enough.

Comment. Is this a show for both adults and children?

I’m sure the intention of Tim Carroll the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival is that the show should be for both adults and children. In her program note, Kate Hennig, who adapted the four stories says: that her commission from Mr. Carroll was “a play for puppets and six actors with interaction for children, drawn from four stories by Oscar Wilde and maintaining Wilde’s wit for adults.” The director is Christine Brubaker whose work I’ve seen before and it’s dandy.

In Brubaker’s program note she says that they have included a children’s chorus and they conceived the show with children at its heart. But by her own admission the stories are complex with philosophical musings, psychological ramifications regarding decisions and discourse on the Christian Faith. There is even a literary essay in the program by Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough (a professor of English) that goes deep in analyzing the stories. Not exactly kids fare.

So the long-short answer is that I haven’t a clue who this show is for, and it’s too easy to say both adults and children, when it’s obvious it’s not. I don’t think the programming of this production was thought through carefully enough.

The chorus is composed of young kids who registered for a workshop that took place 45 minutes before the show. They made props and participate by ringing a bell, reacting to a word as the stories are told or other kinds of reactions and involvement.

On the day I saw Wilde Tales there were 20 kids participating and they all sat on the floor around the acting space. If you sat further back than the third row you had difficulty seeing them at all. If the kids are meant to participate, surely we should be able to see them. There were no kids in the audience. The rest of the audience were adults, some of whom were related to the kids. So you see my concern—while the stories do have an element that on a basic level would appeal to kids, they really are sophisticated and would appeal to adults. Yet they are performed in that clichéd manner that talks down to kids and would turn off adults. So who is this show for? Nobody?

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Began: June 8, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 7, 2017.
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 55 minutes.

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