Lifeline Theatre

Children’s plays tend to be awfully precious and stuffy. They seem aimed not at children, but at some adult notion of what children are like–sentimental, romantic, and literate.

The Reluctant Dragon might have been one of those plays. Adapted from a story by Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, it contains sentences like this: “His parents were fond of him too, though they didn’t let on in his hearing, so he was left to go his own way and read as much as he liked; and instead of frequently getting a cuff on the side of the head, as might very well have happened to him, he was treated more or less as an equal by his parents, who sensibly thought it a very fair division of labour that they should supply the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning.”

This guy is a children’s author? I don’t know how much the kids understood of Grahame’s prose, but I sure had trouble following it.

Still, Lifeline Theatre chose to adapt his story for its “KidSeries.” And the prose didn’t seem to matter much at all to the kids. Director Randy Colborn has had the good sense to stage the 40-minute play as a cartoon, which means that understanding every word is not crucial.

Besides, the story is easy enough to grasp just from watching: A little boy befriends a dragon who lives on a nearby hillside, and encourages the monster to joust with Saint George, the famous dragon slayer, who is on his way to town. But the dragon’s breath has lost its fire, and he’s developed a fondness for naps, so he agrees only reluctantly to the little boy’s appeal to stage a mock battle with Saint George for the enjoyment of the townspeople.

This simple story provides ample opportunity for the actors to talk loudly, make flamboyant gestures, and chase each other around. Steve Totland, who adapted the story for the stage and plays the dragon and the little boy’s mother, overacts intelligently, using his voice and body language to capture the children’s attention. Newcomer to Chicago Linda Jones, as the little boy, uses her expressive face to the same effect. And Maggie Carney, as Saint George, indulges in the buffoonish humor children seem to love. She draws her sword, for example, with a loud “shiiinngg,” adding her own verbal sound effect to an already absurdly dramatic gesture.

Rick Haefele’s simple but inventive set enhances the show’s cartoon quality. It consists of a backdrop shaped like a gigantic book, with each page measuring about four by eight feet. When a change of scene is called for, an actor merely turns the page, creating an entirely new locale. Justine Liht’s costumes–especially the shimmering green dragon suit–are bright, clownlike, and eye-catching.

Grahame’s prose may be beyond the comprehension of any kid I know, but the gist of his story is not. The Reluctant Dragon is a kids’ show honestly meant for kids, not for adults hell- bent on exposing their kids to culture. Even the theater space itself seems designed with children in mind. The kids sit on small carpet samples scattered on the floor, and even though the windows are hung with bright ribbons of cloth to keep out the sunlight, the room never goes quite dark. Small children are made to feel welcome and comfortable.

The Reluctant Dragon is a fair compromise between what children actually like and what adults think they should like. Based on a story any adult would consider suitably elevated, the play also contains enough low humor to amuse the Saturday-morning cartoon set. So the kids can enjoy themselves by watching, while the adults amuse themselves by mentally hacking their way through Grahame’s thick verbiage.