Chicago Children’s Theatre

at North Shore Country Day School

Before the curtain went up on Jungalbook, a woman from Chicago Children’s Theatre walked onstage and gave a little speech. “It’s OK to laugh or applaud,” she said to the audience of mostly grade-schoolers. “But don’t talk, because the actors have worked really hard on this show and they want to make sure you see everything.”

If this speech was intended to turn a bunch of kids into a polite audience, it didn’t work. Kids, those ever-wily creatures, will always find a way to do what you don’t want them to. Especially when they’re in a dark theater, especially when the play’s pretty boring.

Jungalbook is Edward Mast’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s much loved The Jungle Books, with their classic tales about Mowgli, a boy raised by a pack of wolves. His parents were killed by a tiger who vows to kill Mowgli, too. But the boy has a protector in Akela, the leader of the wolves, and in other animals such as Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear, who instructs him in the laws of the jungle.

Kipling’s stories make us feel we’re peering into a magical kingdom with its own history, laws, and languages. But like many good books, when it’s translated into another genre, its charm is lost. Mast trims the tales down to fit a one-hour time slot–which is understandable. What’s frustrating is that he oversimplifies the story, focusing on one element–the meaning of fear. He also slaughters the language by mixing direct quotes from Kipling (like the elegant “Good hunting to you, Bagheera”) with contemporary language (“Aw, shut up, will ya?”).

Furthermore director Curt Columbus and CCT’s assortment of actors do a sloppy, lazy job of scene and character analysis. Jungalbook gets off to a good enough start with an ooh-and-ah-inspiring set by Nan Zabriskie and a great little monkey dance by Larry Grimm, but it goes downhill the moment more actors enter. Even at this point the action seems to lack purpose. A couple of young wolves (Darlene Hunt and Pamella Pearl) run onstage barking like Pekingese pups and toss a bundle between them. Supposedly they’re “fighting over who will get to eat the small bundle,” but it seems more like they’re playing catch. One of them throws the bundle to the ground, where it lands upside down in the middle of the stage. (Some baby–it lands on its nose and it doesn’t even cry.) Later, when a group of animals are discussing what to do with the man cub, the baby’s still lying there on its nose and no one makes a move to right it. As a matter of fact, no one seems to look at it much, though supposedly everyone is fighting over it. The rest of the play, like this first scene, has only a vague, convictionless direction. The story in The Jungle Books is an exciting one, but CCT’s production is, alas, void of suspense or drama. Even the animal fights are boring.

Maybe it’s the stiff, awkward deliveries. Then again, maybe some of these lines couldn’t have been pulled off even by the most talented actor. At the beginning of the show Mowgli (who’s played quite well by George Keating) asks his teacher Baloo (Jamie Vann), “Fear? I don’t think I know that word. What is fear?” Later, after Akela dies, Mowgli says to the audience, “This is fear, I guess, huh?” I wished I were a kid again so I could make some wisecrack like the ones I heard behind me.

All this brings me to the question of what exactly children’s theater is, and what differentiates it from “grown-up” theater. Judging from Jungalbook, children’s theater has a “message,” it’s instructive yet entertaining, and it employs a lot of kicks in the butt and pratfalls.

That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s not sufficient. What’s most bothersome about Jungalbook is that it seems to underestimate the intellectual capacities of its audience, and to assume that a couple of sight gags, an exotic tale, and beautiful, colorful scenery will be entertaining enough to carry the message about the meaning of fear. I didn’t buy it, and I don’t think anyone else did either.

Kids are a tough audience. They expect as much, or more, from a performance as grown-ups. Case in point: at the opening of the show Baloo was delivering a speech about the law of the jungle when suddenly this kid behind me asked in a real snotty voice, “Who are you?” (Good question, I thought.) Later, when Baloo was in the middle of another wise-old-bear speech, the kid told him flat out to shut up.

Way to go, kid.