Growing Stage Chlldrens Theater Company

Although based on an African folktale, Susan Zeder’s Wiley and the Hairy Man is set in the Louisiana bayou. Wiley is the son of Mammy, the best conjuring woman in the southwest county. She can do just about any sort of magic–except get the Hairy Man out of Wiley’s head.

See, the Hairy Man ate Wiley’s pappy, and now Wiley is convinced that the Hairy Man is coming for him. The only thing protecting Wiley is his old hound dog, because everyone knows that the Hairy Man hates dogs. But Wiley is forced to go into the swamp, Hairy Man territory, to cut down a tree to build his dog a house. There Wiley meets and then eludes his biggest fear. That, of course, angers the Hairy Man. But Mammy has discovered that if a person outfoxes the Hairy Man three times, he has to leave that person alone forever. The rest of the play consists of Wiley trying to trick the old conjurer.

The Growing Stage Childrens Theater Company and director Antony Van Zyl have put together a strong cast for this delightful rendition of Wiley and the Hairy Man. Wayne E. Pyle makes Wiley simpleminded and clever at the same time. Kent Nicholson, as Wiley’s dog, has some trouble slipping around the floor in his costume, but he’s so doglike endearing when he bites pieces off the Hairy Man that he becomes almost more of a hero than Wiley. Catherine Martineau plays Mammy as a sexy woman who’s arrogant about her magical powers but who is still the perfect loving mom when it comes to Wiley. Jonathon Pitts’s foot-stomping, teeth-gnashing, green-haired Hairy is in no way grotesque: he’s more big and mean than ogreish or goblin-like. He’s a clever trickster, a nasty swamp thing, and sometimes just an ordinary, frustrated magician. By making him more like a human being who could really exist, Pitts makes him more frightening.

The three chorus members don’t measure up. Their costumes and voices suggest that they’re meant to be vaguely sinister, but there’s a lot of cutesy mugging going on in the background.

Van Zyl sets a slightly eerie tone, playing up the danger and magic yet maintaining the humor. The green swamp magic things writhe across the floor, while the dog and the Hairy Man do a Keystone Kop chase around a tree. Techniseek did the costumes and set designs, draping the set with creeping vines, but keeping everything two-dimensional so that even the spooky things have cartoon elements. Margaret L. Nelson’s lighting–with lots of dark green during the Hairy Man magic sequences–was appropriately storybook.

The one element that the show really needed was sound. There was an insistent, pounding rhythm to the spoken words, but music could have heightened that effect and might have added an exotic element to the swamp.