Just So-So Stories
In his program notes for this Shotgun Players production, adapter Richard J. Silberg writes, "I found in re-reading the Kipling that the story was very appropriate to [young playgoers] as the issues are identity -- Who am I? To which group do I belong, if any? -- shifting allegiances, prejudice, betrayal, loss, love, survival and violence -- and if that's not adolescent stuff I don't know what is." He's right, of course, but in trying to make Kipling more relevant for teens, he often makes the mistake of assuming verbal convolutions will bring about the desired emotional complexity. In Rudyard Kipling's 1894 book of stories, Laws of the Jungle are much simpler than what is communicated here, and Silberg's play gets a little lost in philosophical thickets. At a 2-1/2-hour running time, this can be deadly.
Yet there are amazements throughout the show. The elephant Hathi is a big, beautiful puppet that would do Julie Taymor proud. (The Lion King is probably now and forever the standard for all animal puppets.) When this magnificent creature, created by set and mask designer Michael Frassinelli, is onstage, it has a wise, peaceful aura, bobbing its huge head, waving its trunk, lumbering along in stately fashion. Its four puppeteers speak in unison to provide its voice, which can grow tiresome after a while, but watching the beast never does. Wisely, Silberg and director Amy Sass give Hathi a much bigger role than Kipling did in The Jungle Book's three Mowgli stories.
The play's other great creation is the python Kaa, designed by Aiyanna Trotter. Portrayed by two actresses, Juliet Tanner and Tori Hinkle, who wave their heads and rock side to side in slithering symmetry, their eyes showing mostly whites, this Kaa is looped on his own lethalness. Tanner and Hinkle trail big coils of green behind them, and when Kaa rescues Mowgli, they step apart and Trotter's wonderful costume reveals a voracious fang-framed mouth just the right size for swallowing troublesome monkeys.
Most everyone is familiar with Kipling's stories of Mowgli, the man-cub who was raised by wolves after his parents were killed by Shere Khan the Tiger. Educated by Baloo the Bear, and protected by Bagheera the Black Panther, Mowgli grows up learning the jungle ways. He's coveted by both the foolish monkeys who admire his skills and by Shere Khan, who views him as food that escaped. Mowgli eventually outgrows the jungle, but is also out of place in the village, which fears him as a sorcerer, since he talks to animals. The last of the three Mowgli stories ends with Mowgli wrapped in Shere Khan's hide and in solitude: "Man-Pack and Wolf-Pack have cast me out. ... Now I will hunt alone in the Jungle."
Despite Silberg's philosophizing, he's mostly faithful to Kipling. His versions of Kipling's songs feature occasional potty humor (the monkeys sing of sniffing each other's butts), some of the young wolves mouth off in a particularly modern adolescent style, and the ending has a more triumphant, slightly environmentalist, bent to it. ("Mowgli and the Jungle are of one blood," the animals acknowledge, echoing Mowgli's earlier lessons.) The production makes an imaginative shift in the tale by casting a girl (Anna Moore) as Mowgli. This is surprisingly successful. Moore is very good, though the excessive verbosity of the second act is too much for her.
Sass provides innovative and distinctive movements for every animal portrayed by her large cast -- porcupine, kite, wolf, panther, monkey, and jackal -- and handles the younger cast members well. Unfortunately, Meghan Love spends too much time in motion as Shere Khan. Her postures are definitely feline, but Khan is a creature of decadent entitlement and power in repose, not a constantly shifting prowler. Similar gestures work much better for Nora el Samahy's Bagheera, who doesn't have the lordly status of Khan. Shaun Church's characterization of Baloo could stand more expansive humor; his Baloo seems rather cold and distant. George Frangides as Tabaqui the Jackal laughs and rolls and kowtows. (Frangides also provides the occasional percussion music.)
Silberg's songs don't really work -- the rhythm accompaniment is too sparse, and many of the voices are unsteady. Sass would have been better off having the songs performed as choral poems with percussion underneath. Still, there's tremendous effort and creativity in this production. With some judicious cutting and trimming, this show could have approached a classic of adventure, magic, and stagecraft. As it is, the audience grows a little weary as the play grows long. Silberg puts too much book in his jungle.
Even if you've never read Rudyard Kipling's 1897 novel The Jungle Book, you must remember doe-eyed animated hero Mowgli in the 1967 Disney movie. Remember that? Now go read some of the poet's more charming imperialist and/or misogynist writing, and try to reconcile the two.
But take heart, socially aware parents: Kipling would shudder at the Shotgun Players' adaptation of his book. Although local playwright Richard Silberg remains faithful to much of the story and language (unlike, say, the Disney movie), this outdoor production features a cast in which many of the central male characters have now become-gulp-girls.
The main character Mowgli, performed extraordinarily cleverly by young actress Anna Moore, is now a kick-butt female hero, stranded in the wild after the cruel tiger Shere Khan (Meghan Love) murders her family. Raised by a family of wolves and taught the law of the jungle by wise bear Baloo (Shaun Church), she has to find her own path and, like a warrior, conquer Shere Khan.
There are times when the story becomes a little confusing. It's actually a strangely political plot involving confusing alliances, and most of the actors play several roles.
But because it's the Shotgun Players' fourth free summertime children's production, they've become great at evoking vivid worlds on shoestring budgets, especially thanks to puppetmakers Michael Frassinelli and Aiyana Trotter.
Director Amy Sass succeeds at conjuring animals out of the all-ages cast, who bark and sniff and roar with abandon. A huge puppet elephant, maneuvered by multiple actors, lumbers across the stage, trunk waving circuitously. The python Kaa is able to open a gaping mouth stretched taut between two actors and devour a group of monkeys onstage.
Which reminds me: this story isn't quite as sweet and touchy-feely as the Disney version. The animals can be vicious, and Mowgli's eventual "rejection" from the pack is as painful as junior high. That's no coincidence, since Silberg originally adapted this version for his students to perform at King Middle School. There's an intentional make-your-own-destiny theme.
The character Mowgli was the original inspiration for the Boy Scouts, and you can see the connection, since the story's about a young person adapting in a wild world. But choosing to have a girl take over the survivalist boy-hero role makes for a fresh spin on a century-old story, a good moral, and a good time in the park.