The best and worst part of toddlers are their Big Feelings. Just the morning of me writing this piece, my toddler (who we call The Shark) has displayed righteous indignation at not being allowed to untie my shoes, throwing-herself-on-the-floor rage at being asked to go to the potty, and screaming delight at booping my nose. So, it was no surprise that she’s been jumping with excitement for this whole week at seeing ?The Velveteen Rabbit ?at Adventure Theatre MTC, even though she has never read or heard the story before. She does have a rabbit though, and she did insist on bringing it to the show.
This world premiere play, advertised for all ages, is about the Big Feelings of a young child and her new old fashioned toy, a plush bunny stuffed with sawdust. Those Feelings start out as stiff rejection of the new toy for its simplicity and longing from the rabbit for acceptance. Those Feelings change as the rabbit becomes (in the Shark’s parlance) a lovey to the child, keeping her company at night and becoming loved as a bosom companion, while the rabbit develops a dependence and sweet admiration for the child.
The show and the 1922 book it is based on call this process “becoming Real,” which is the rabbit’s Big Feeling of yearning throughout the show. The rabbit’s desire comes true when the child is stuck with scarlet fever and the rabbit carries her through with companionship and a dreamlike monster fighting scene, becoming a literally real rabbit just before being burned for being infected with scarlet fever germs.
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Yeah, you read that correctly. BURNED. It turns out that children’s books in the early 20th century had some dark overtones that haven’t yet shown up in most of the things that I read to the Shark. I wasn’t terribly concerned about Big Feelings of scariness of the show, even though it dealt with disease, toy death, and depicted a couple of scary puppet monsters. Children are quite resilient and she’s obsessed with monsters anyway, but it is a good note for parents who care about such things.
The terror was more reserved for the adults in the audience, who have well-formed fears on these subjects. Similarly, much of the content, from humor to stage magic to acting and blocking choices seemed pointed at a grown up audience. From my perspective as a parent that has recently been taking my child to quite a bit of Theater for Young Audiences, this focus is a problem, since my overall goals for taking my child to these shows are grabbing her attention and providing memorable storytelling experiences.
The strongest attention grabber in the show for the Shark was when The Child got sick— a condition that she understands first hand that is happening to a character that she identifies with. The event gave her some Big Feelings of concern for the child that drew her into the play. She didn’t, or perhaps wasn’t old enough to, grasp the fine distinctions of “becoming Real” that are the crux of Velveteen Rabbit. For her, the show didn’t really start until the stakes were raised by scarlet fever. Without that understanding, much of the show simply ran right past her.
There were some choices made that exacerbated this phenomenon. Much of the humor in the show involved wordplay or esoteric references that weren’t accessible to her. A prime example was The Child reading Ulysses from a library book, but instead of the Greek adventure story, it was James Joyce’s unwieldy prose. That was good for a guffaw from the grownups, but not so much for the kiddos.
One thing that impressed me as an adult with theater-watching experience was Matthew Buttrey’s enormous rotating set, which changed from outdoor house to unfolding to a large child’s room to rotating entirely on an axis to create a library. Perhaps the Shark is becoming jaded (a problem for critics of any age), but she could not summon any Big Feelings or memories of the stage.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to her attaching Big Feelings to The Velveteen Rabbit was the lack of dynamism in blocking and acting. Part of this stagnancy is inherent in the script, the Rabbit only has legs when the child is around and conscious. That’s a great device for giving the Rabbit her own stage time, but it also created long periods of static stage pictures where the Shark checked out. Moreover, when she checked out, she missed the more verbal and emotional parts of the script. As a theatermaker, I wished for more moments of the Rabbit trying to overcome her immobilization with varied tactics, but those scenes devolved into what we call “acting from the neck up.”
The Velveteen Rabbit closes January 1, 2020. Details and tickets
There were some moments that I think would have given the Shark some Big Feelings if she were older or had a previous understanding of the story. Alex De Bard’s plaintive Rabbit found some great moments of change in her character, especially when she becomes Real for real. In the ensemble, Mary Myers is a face pulling physical comedy delight if you know to keep your eyes on her, which many children and parents in the audience did. The design transitions, especially from Kenann M Quander’s costumes gave some excellent detail to the story and made it come alive.
But these types of moments and arcs don’t really seem to be for all ages as the marketing description says. However, I would recommend this play for Young Audiences who are 5 and above, and, even more, this production is a great retelling of a classic story for those who are already familiar with it. I hope it gives them the same Big Feelings it gave me.
The Velveteen Rabbit. Adapted by Patrick Flynn. Based on the book by Margery Williams. Directed by Jenna Duncan. Featuring Alex De Bard, Mary Myers, Alex Reeves, and Eirin Stevenson. Scenic Design by Matthew Buttrey. Sound Design by Matthew Nielson. Projections Design by Kelly Colburn. Choreography by Tony Thomas. Costume Design by Kenann Modjeska Quander. Puppets design by Kylie Clark. Lighting Design by Sarah Tundermann. Properties Design by Pauline Lamb. Stage Management by Kirsten E. Parker. Produced by Adventure Theatre MTC. Reviewed by Alan Katz.