And so you are a cat (Sharisse Taylor) on Wild Island, which is all full of banyan trees and red vines, and one day you see an egg as big as a Galapagos turtle. Because you are a cat, you sniff at it and poke at it until finally it cracks and out steps a dewy baby dragon. You play with him until the Sun goes down and you crawl under your tree to sleep. That night, you hear monkeys raising a ruckus and one final, horrible scream. When you get up the next day your new friend is gone.
Or perhaps you are “my father” Elmer Elevator. (Ruth Stiles Bennett, who authored the novel which Ryan Sellers adapted into this play, referred to Elmer as “my father” throughout the book.) You live in a cardboard box under a trestle, and every morning you go outside, create found music and do a soft shoe for money. In this you are like most contemporary artists, who receive much acclaim and little cash. On this particular day you are spectacularly unsuccessful, despite your best efforts, and finally your only audience is a striped cat, to whom you give the last of your milk. She reciprocates by showing you a map to a most interesting adventure.
You are thus off on the adventure of My Father’s Dragon, which, at Synetic Family Theater, is very much, but not exactly, like the Newberry Award winning novel of the same name. Urged on by the cat, who knows that something very unfair and bad has been done to the baby dragon, Elmer (Scott Whalen) takes on the warthog, a fierce border patroller advised by a tattletale mouse, a ferocious lantern-eyed lion, an enormous rhinoceros, and a predatory crocodile, who he converts to his cause through the strategic use of a lollipop, before confronting the gorilla who has made the dragon his captive — a gorilla so colossal that it takes two puppeteers to move him. You can guess how each of these confrontations ends up.
My father’s technique, in each of these confrontations, is distraction — a technique well known to certain American political leaders. He wins the rhino over, for example, by cleaning up his massive horn with his toothbrush. I do not recommend that you try this technique on rhinos at home.
Synetic Family Theater is able to bring this fantastic story to life through the use of Phil Charlwood’s über-efficient set, which captures all the wild elements of Wild Island and yet is modified, without fuss or wasted time, into my father’s urban home, and to Matthew McGee’s astonishing puppets, which bring to mind the equally wonderful puppets Emily DeCola and Eric Wright created for Arena’s The Snow Child. McGee, who is principally known in our area as an actor, has a long and complimentary history of puppet design, particularly at Imagination Stage and Constellation. He outdoes himself here; in particular, his lion, whose eyes light up when he sees prey, is magnificent; and his rhino, who takes up half the stage but in Tori Tolentino’s clever direction never dominates it, is amazing.
The variations from Bennett’s novel are mostly occasioned by Synetic Family Theater’s decision to present the story without words. The cat accompanies Elmer to Wild Island (in the novel she stays home); the dragon is a captive of the gorilla and his monkey minions (in the novel he is put to mercantile purposes.) Elmer’s backstory is a little different.
My Father’s Dragon
closes January 6, 2018
Details and tickets
Instead of words, we have Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s compositions. Having listened to Lortkipanidze’s work for the better part of twelve years, I can detect a certain growing sophistication, even mellowing; in 2006 (say) he was all sturm and drang; all portent and resonant disharmony. There is some of that in My Father’s Dragon, as there should be, but there is also sweetness, and the music is in harmony with my father’s delirious happiness, when he achieves some triumph against the odds, as he often does.
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Synetic is famous for its movement, and Whalen — a member of Pointless Theatre and a highly respected puppeteer — moves as gracefully and energetically as the Synetic veterans with whom he is paired. He is particularly spectacular doing a songless song-and-dance outside his cardboard home for an indifferent public, in which he recalls a young Dick Van Dyke. Taylors’ cat is sensuous, magnificent and utterly convincing, and the rest of the ensemble (Justin Bell, Kat Cardenas-Cruz and Nutsa Tediashvili) work beautifully as both puppeteers and actors.
There are a few scenes — I’m thinking of Elmer’s constant consultation with a medallion (compass?) which seems to have more emotional content than the context allows, and a moment near the end where the monkeys fall asleep — which are neither grounded in the text of Bennett’s novel or the context of the play. Sellers may wish to rethink these scenes in future iterations of the play.
But the remaining scenes track, vividly and convincingly, my father’s heroism, and your father’s too, I hope. Because, if he was a proper father, he may not have taken on lions and rhinos in order to rescue a baby dragon, but he took on their equivalent to rescue you.
My Father’s Dragon, adapted by Ryan Sellers from the novel by Ruth Stiles Bennett, directed by Tori Tolentino . Featuring Scott Whalen, Sharisse Taylor, Justin J. Bell, Kat Cardenas-Cruz, and Nutsa Tediashvili . Scenic design by Phil Chartwood, who also serves as technical director . Costume design by Sadie Albert, assisted by Nicole Smith . Sound design and compositions by Konstantine Lortkipanidze . Lighting design by Ian Claar . Pullet Design by Matthew McGee . Thomas Sowers is the audio engineer . Phil Giggey, Sr. is the production manager . Tess Wagner, assisted by Erica Feidelseit, is the stage manager . Produced by Synetic Family Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.