Lifeline Theatre


Griffin Theatre Company

Just hearing the title of My Father’s Dragon was enough to send my three-year-old niece whimpering out to the lobby. In her first excursion to the theater, she was imagining “bad” dragons, monsters that she might be able to face in a book or on television but not in person. Unfortunately, she and her mother missed a thoroughly silly and kid-friendly play based on Ruth Stiles Gannett’s Newbery-winning book. Recommended for children age four to ten, this Lifeline Theatre KidSeries production has nothing more scary than bubble gum-chewing tigers, cleaning-obsessed moms, and a tongue-tied mouse. James Sie’s adaptation uses simple but incredibly effective story telling and audience-participation techniques, and the kids in the audience seemed to like getting in on the act almost as much as I enjoyed watching them.

In Gannett’s popular children’s story, Ernie Elevator is the narrator who describes his father’s boyhood adventures to Wild Island. In the stage version, he’s the energetic storyteller who involves the watching children in the action. Though all the characters and animals are played by adult actors, Ernie (James Grote) comes close to being the children’s peer. As the play opens, he walks up the aisles and shares his drawing pad with the kids. Then he pulls their attention down to his stage bedroom and into his imagination, where they meet Ernie’s father, Elmer, when he was still a boy.

Once on Wild Island, where Elmer hopes to rescue a baby dragon, the action moves quickly as the boy-dad outsmarts a parade of animals far more cranky than vicious. When Elmer comes face-to-face with hungry tigers, Ernie looks to the audience to lend his dad a hand. They eagerly shout out that Elmer had packed blue bubble gum for just such a dilemma. Later they shout out to Elmer to use the toothpaste in his sack to appease a rhinoceros with a dirty tusk, and to give his hairbrush to the whiny lion with a messy mane. The children also create the chorus of monkey “oo-oohs” and lion roars that frighten skittish Elmer on his journey.

The charming script entertains parents and children equally with such ridiculous sights as supposedly scary tigers looking into each other’s mouths to see what color their bubble gum is. Gannett’s wordplay comes to life with a nervous mouse who says “Fomething feels sunny.” My favorite animal is the flea-ridden gorilla with a fondness for alliteration who calls out for his friends “Rosie, Rhoda, Rachel, Ruthie, Ruby, Roberta!” Employing the best kind of children’s humor, My Father’s Dragon doesn’t talk down to the kids or offer them stupid characters. At one point, when Ernie asks the audience to help his dad, Elmer puts his foot down and says, “Wait a minute. I can get it!”

Director Sandy Snyder keeps the performances enthusiastic without resorting to the obnoxious perkiness that I associate with children’s productions. Rather than wide eyes and unctuous smiles, the five-person ensemble give us 16 distinct characterizations. I was particularly impressed with Marci Kipnis’s range as a worldly-wise cat, a sniveling mouse, a pawing tiger, and a conniving crocodile, and enjoyed the street-tough quality of Shole Milos’s sailor, rhino, and New York-accented gorilla. As Ernie, Grote finds the perfect balance between being a boy and the instrument that holds the story together. One minute he’s onstage leading Elmer’s adventure, the next he’s blending effortlessly into the audience letting the action roll until he’s needed again. As Elmer, the clean-cut Chris Baer is never outrageously nerdy. Like the rest of the cast, he doesn’t need to beg for laughs with broad pranks.

In keeping with the tone of the production, Rebecca Shouse’s costumes, Rebecca Hamlin’s props, and Alan Donahue’s set are more inventive than elaborate. Wearing neat monochromatic pants and shirts, the actors simply don different animal heads (and tails), cat’s-eye glasses, sailor hats, and baseball caps to change their personas. Shouse goes a little wilder with the crocodiles–one actor wearing a snout and tail who paddles a skateboard and rolls along two prop crocodiles on skateboards. She saves her wildest creation for last. A Muppet-like hand puppet initially, the dragon in the end becomes a full-size figure equipped with long gossamer wings to fly Elmer home. Most of the furniture and props do triple duty as parts of Ernie/Elmer’s room, a ship, and a jungle. Watching the actors turn a swivel chair into a rocking ship and window shades into tree foliage is like watching kids at play.

My Father’s Dragon has an underlying message about treating animals with kindness, but it’s mostly about the power and joys of the imagination. The audience at this production learn the lesson by vivid example.

There’s more lesson than imagination to Griffin Theatre’s Don’t Whistle in the Graveyard, written and directed by Kimberly Muller. Muller sets her story in a graveyard where four preteens spend the night telling vaguely spooky stories. Between tales, a brother and sister and two friends talk in a forced manner about teen issues such as drugs, gangs, divorce, and fitting in.

The first giveaway that Muller doesn’t have her finger on the pulse of adolescents is the play’s uneasy dialogue. In a lame attempt to establish relationships, she has Joe refer to Renee as “little sister” more than once. With equally unrealistic language, Joe explains why the two are able to stay out all night. Telling his sister something she surely knows, he says, “Remember, Mom and Dad are away for the weekend.” Later he refers to the “neighborhood kids” who tried to stay overnight in the graveyard once before. Who but parents would say “neighborhood kids”?

Three of Muller’s four tales lack originality and spark. The first, involving a forbidden romance between a wealthy girl and a peasant, is so hackneyed and mushy it will bore young and old viewers alike. The second, about a dead man who comes back to dance on his grave, and the third, about an arrogant young beauty who leaves her family because they are sickly, should have been humorously gruesome and thick with doom. The kids in the audience will probably be reading Poe in school soon, but here they get only a watered-down version of the real thing.

Muller’s best tale, a send-up of West Side Story, doesn’t have much of a plot but does exude a youthful energy, as Renee, Joe, Trish, and Elliot play 50s gang members who click their fingers and throw around slang like “cool, man.” Also, some theatrical flash gives the audience a memorable jolt when a ghostly robed figure with glowing eyes appears in a cloud of smoke to scare off the gang leader.

Clearly, the rap sessions between ghost stories are meant to teach young viewers the value of sharing feelings. It’s a good message, and actors Jennifer Chervenick, Mary Cross, Paul Denniston, and Brendan Sullivan do a good job of revealing the love and concern behind the insults the four youths swap. Still, I wish the play’s main goal was to impress upon young theatergoers the power of subtlety, rich characterization, and moving story telling.

In my review of Dark of the Moon, I misidentified the play on which the musical Oklahoma! is based. That play is Green Grow the Lilacs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.