Lifeline Theatre

Few works of family literature have captured the wonder and terror of growing up as Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle books have. In his two volumes of stories (The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book) about Mowgli, the Indian child stolen from his parents by a tiger and raised in the jungle by wolves, Kipling found a perfect and thrilling metaphor for the savage innocence of childhood; and in Mowgli’s painful but inevitable return to the village of his birth, Kipling charted the tortuous journey through adolescent alienation and confusion to the complexities of adulthood.

Like Never-Never Land, the island created by Kipling contemporary James Barrie for his hero Peter Pan, the jungle world Mowgli must leave behind is a magic place–beautiful and terrible, filled with love and friendship and excitement and awful violence, governed by elaborate codes of honor, and populated by scary-wonderful friends and enemies. It is the eventual separation from these companions–animals all (and what child wouldn’t prefer talking panthers and wolves and bears and monkeys to mere people for playmates?)–that gives the Jungle books their emotional tug, their haunting edge of melancholy and mystery that enriches the thrilling, sometimes humorous adventures of Mowgli.

Lifeline Theatre bills its stage adaptation of the Kipling stories as “the original” Jungle Book in an effort to distance their production from the two well-known movie versions. A 1942 film starring Sabu unconvincingly dubbed in voices over live animal footage to portray Mowgli’s upbringing among the “Free People” of the jungle; the 1967 Walt Disney cartoon trivialized the material into a jungly, soft-rock Song of the South. Meryl Friedman and Christina Calvit, director and author respectively of Lifeline’s staging (their other credits include Lifeline’s literary adaptations Pride and Prejudice and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), have eschewed any effort to portray realistic or caricatured animals, or to lighten up Kipling’s narrative. Working in a vein of theatrical abstraction and ritual, the Lifeline company revels in the darkness and eeriness of the stories. The tone is set in the exciting and spooky opening, with its dissonant vocal tone clusters, throbbing percussion, and chanted delivery of Kipling’s text. Rather than trying to depict animals, the costumes suggest animalism–a wise variation of Kipling’s use of animal types to satirize human foibles. Laura Cunningham and Margaret Fitzsimmons-Morettini’s costume designs make striking use of Indian prints. Shere Khan, the cruel and vengeful tiger whose determined and deadly pursuit of Mowgli (like Captain Hook’s of Peter Pan ) fuels the story, is arrayed as a grand, slightly decadent Indian warlord, garbed in regal reds and adorned with tigerishly striped makeup. Mowgli is a shirtless youth dashingly dressed in baggy trousers and a red sash.

Sometimes the action is a bit too abstract; even some adults I checked with were confused by the scene in which Kaa, the huge and ancient python, hypnotizes and devours the anarchic monkey tribe that has kidnapped Mowgli. (Jacquie Krupka’s would-be snake dance comes off like Elsa Lanchester trying to play Mata Hari.) Many children, especially younger ones, are likely to be unsure of what’s going on unless they’ve been introduced to the Kipling stories ahead of time. But judging from the reaction of kids at the Sunday matinee performance I attended, they certainly won’t fail to be riveted by the colorful and moody costumes, the imaginative and often athletic stage action, Rebecca Hamlin’s simple and eloquent set (a series of levels and steps surrounded by beautiful green-and-purple painted panels), and the exotic, theatrical score by percussionist Willy Steele that incorporates wind chimes, conga drum, wood blocks, and vocal sounds. (Jacquie Krupka takes composing credit for one of the production’s loveliest sequences–the plaintive modal song Mowgli’s human mother sings to him.)

The ensemble cast is generally good; Richard Walker is particularly enjoyable as the panther Bagheera, as are Kevin McCoy as the excitable and sleazy jackal Tabaqui, and Lester Palmer, working in a Peter Ustinov mode, as the blustery bear Baloo. Mark Lancaster is fully up to the physical demands of his role as Mowgli, spending much of his time leaping about the stage or swinging over it on a trapeze. But I wish he had differentiated a bit more between Mowgli’s different ages, especially in his vocal inflections.

There are occasional shortcomings, but Lifeline’s imaginative Jungle Book evokes the thematic resonance and the sense of magic that make Kipling’s books living classics 100 years after their writing.