One of the most poignant moments I’ve recently seen at the theatre occurs (no spoiler alert needed!) at the end of Me…Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall, which opened this past weekend at Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences.
A sequence of photographs of Jane Goodall, whose youth is the subject of the piece, appears projected on a screen behind the stage, and is capped by a short videotaped greeting from the great woman herself.
It’s a wonderfully graceful way of underlining the fact, for the children in the audience as well as the adults, that the coming of age we have been witnessing for the previous hour is a true story; or, as my son Aksel would put it, “it’s for real life.”
And it’s an emotionally potent moment, not only because of the fun we feel in recognizing the realness of the character and the story we’ve just been experiencing; but also because of the stagecraft involved.
We’ve been watching people on-stage in front of us tell the story of a figure who is larger than life; and then, suddenly, there she is — literally larger than life.
And she speaks to us at first not in English, but in (presumably) Ape, giving the introduction an exoticness that is somehow lovely while at the same time giving us goosebumps.
And it mattered to me that I was taking my kids not just to an afternoon of theatre, but also to a lesson, albeit a very entertaining one, about a person — and a part of the world — that I’m eager for them to learn about.
In this city that has a lot of wonderful options for young audiences (and I’ve seen some dynamite stuff already this season), Me…Jane offers something unique among the available choices.
It’s easy to become a bit frustrated by the plethora of royalty that inhabit kid lit, on both page and stage. Much of it is terrific, but it makes me crazy when, so often, you hear things like, “For every young girl with a dream, there’s a Disney Princess to show her it’s possible.”
How refreshing to encounter a play for kids in which self-actualization and empowerment aren’t dependent on being born with a title.
I have to confess that I haven’t thought about Jane Goodall in decades, although that photo montage brought memories of 60s spreads in copies of National Geographic flooding back. And, as the parent of five year-old twins, I know how important it is for kids to know about (and to school each other about the various facts concerning) animals.
Kids love animals; and Me…Jane is as satisfying for them as a trip to the zoo.
The Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences show is based on a book of the same name by Patrick McDonnell, who collaborated on its adaptation with Aaron Posner, who also directs, and Andy Mitton, who also wrote the songs.
We meet Jane and her encouraging Mother and observe how the natural world and its inhabitants grow, for Jane, from interest to obsession. We see her engage (somewhat fancifully) with the critters a young girl in mid-century Britain might encounter.
A neighbor couple is on hand to discourage and disdain the interests she pursues. One gives her an academic tome on the subject, which she dutifully reads. As the young Jane resists the expert’s judgements because they do not conform to her own experience with her beloved dog Rusty, the play moves to its climax: she learns to trust in her own experience over conventional wisdom, and a primatologist is born.
An exceptional team has been convened to present this world premiere commission for Kennedy Center. The direction, design, and performances are superb.
It’s the rare DC theatre-goer who has not admired the work of Director/Adapter Posner. I never saw his Stupid Fucking Bird (from The Seagull), but saw and very much admired Life Sucks (from Uncle Vanya), which I thought was striking in the way in which it channeled the essence of Chekhov’s original while at the same time that it also created a new, distinctly contemporary play.
Posner is responsible not only for the effectiveness of that gorgeously powerful end moment, but also for how smoothly the talents that he has assembled here blend. I loved the way he subtly associates the audience with Jane throughout the piece: the nay-sayers point at us; house lights tweak up as the lyric “just like you” recurs.
Me … Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall
closes December 10, 2017
Details and tickets
Choreographer Christopher D’Amboise’s work is delightfully inventive. Presumably, in addition to the dance work during the songs, he also worked with Posner on the animal characterizations, as actors channel squirrels, giraffes, penguins, chickens, etc. I guess a children’s show that runs an hour can’t be said to have an “eleven o’clock number,” but the dance sequence during the show’s climactic song is truly fabulous.
Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway and Projection Designer Olivia Sebesky cleverly animate Jane’s notebooks — it’s as if she is drawing directly on the back wall.
Music Director William Yanesh, obviously working with impressive vocal talent, has made sure everyone sounds terrific. The hard-working cast is smooth as silk as they keep up a hectic pace of singing and dancing while frequently changing character and clothes; they even add percussion during one nifty sequence.
Helen Q. Huang designed the costumes, which deftly mix period looks with neutral colors for the actors-as-animals. Justin Schmitz’ sound-scape almost subliminally plants in our heads the allure of the jungle for Jane.
The accent work is impeccable. I was particularly impressed when Jane’s Mother said “drawing”; she dropped in an “r” where only the Brits would pronounce it, so that the word became “draw-ring.” Particular kudos for that bit of accent accuracy!
Erin Weaver as young Jane is just outstanding. It’s always a treat, going to stuff aimed at the young, when an adult playing a child captures the essence of youth without pushing the performance into caricature. Oh, and, by the way, she also serves the production as its Dramaturg.
Tracy Lynn Olivera, fresh off the genius reviews she received in Signature Theatre’s A Little Night Music, is Jane’s Mother, but also has a delightful turn as a taciturn chipmunk. Sam Ludwig has that Astaire quality of making strenuous dancing look effortless, and he also has a really fun turn as a plummy-voiced academic.
Awa Sal Secka’s number as a nervous chicken is a show highlight. Eymard Cabling rounds out the cast as Jane’s dog and he’s a big part of the effectiveness of the climactic sequence.
I wasn’t thrilled, I must admit, by Mitton’s score, which sounds, on first hearing, like much other post-Sondheim theatre music. Of course, sometimes, upon repeated hearing, what at first sounds generic can engage you; and, on the way out, I heard a three year-old singing one of the early numbers, so I guess the score meets the Jerry Herman “humability” standard.
That singing toddler wasn’t the only happy kid coming out of the Kennedy Center Family Theater. And many of them were accompanied by equally happy adults.
Me…Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall, based on the book Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell; Adapted and Written by Patrick McDonnell, Andy Mitton, and Aaron Posner. Music and Lyrics by Andy Mitton, Co-Arranged by William Yanesh. Directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Erin Weaver, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Awa Sal Secka, Sam Ludwig, and Eymard Cabling. Choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise. Music Direction by William Yanesh. Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway. Lighting Designer: Andrew Cissna. Costume Designer: Helen Q. Huang. Projection Designer: Olivia Sebesky. Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz. Properties Artisan: Kasey Hendricks. Dramaturg: Erin Weaver. Production Stage Manager: Julia Singer. Produced by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Theater for Young Audiences. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.