Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Velveteen memories

‘Velveteen Rabbit’ on stage suspends disbelief

Express Staff Writer

You’re welcome along with Logan Smith’s travels with his beloved rabbit. Photo by Kirsten Shultz

In the beginning, he was really splendid," Margery Williams wrote about the Velveteen Rabbit stuffed into a boy's Christmas stocking. "Sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming."

Weren't we all, once.

After a particularly rangy growth spurt that we get to experience twice each spiral with my two 8-year-olds, my husband and I have been thrust into a state of distress that makes us want to go back to our childhood, ditch the knowledge, the weight, the pain and be splendid and charming again to someone, anyone, again.

"Nursery magic is very strange and wonderful. Only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it," the narrator notes.

When you walk into the Liberty Theatre and get a look at the stage, a comfortable and instantly recognizable boy's bedroom filled with all its tangible periphery and objects, airplanes and stuffed animals, you will be taken to a familiar place, no matter what stage your development.

The Company of Fools production of "The Velveteen Rabbit," opens Oct. 20 and runs through Oct. 30. Local schoolchildren will occupy the seats through most of the run, leaving only eight performances for the rest of us to squeeze into. And if your circle's children see this lovingly delivered version, chances are good, they'll try and get their adults to take them back to share the story time that asks us to ponder "What is real?"

"Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" the rabbit asks of the wise old Skin Horse, his predecessor in the boy's nursery.

"Real isn't how you are made," the Skin Horse says. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real."

And just like most growing children, and some stretching adults, the answer is not enough.

"Does it hurt?"

"Sometimes," the Skin Horse says in his unflinching honesty. "When you are real, you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up? Or, bit by bit?"

"It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily or who have sharp edges or have to be carefully kept."

So there's why I can't raise fragile girls, or, those too rigid. I think a shrink I fired in my teens, just before he could relate the story of the three-legged stool, warned me that better to be a willow that bends than an oak tree. While I remember bristling at the thought, I have since found it to be true, oops.

"Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby," the Skin Horse explains. "But these things don't matter at all because once you are real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Since my kids are rubbing my fur off these days, I do hope that the Skin Horse is right.

But, the rabbit's reaction is the same that most us mortals have, whether it's when trying to slow our children's desires to grow up too fast, or our own inabilities to conquer a fear, lose the weight, love ourselves on our schedule.

"He longed to become real. To know what it felt like," the narration reads. "He wished he could become it without all these uncomfortable things happening to him."

I'm with you, kid.

This cross-generational classic is made even more real through the work of master puppeteer Terry Snyder, who created the hand puppets and marionettes brought to life by Company of Fools players. Some of the puppeteers will be seen, like Per Janson, who handles the bunny star. Claudia McCain serves as a narrator and the pivotal nursery fairy, and Scott Creighton narrates and is the wise Skin Horse.

On a recent set visit, core company artist John Glenn, whose roots are as a puppeteer, and Denise Simone introduced me to the cast. While Glenn is visible, once the rabbit begins to speak, my eyes can't leave his. The more the rabbit speaks, the further away Glenn gets. Simone said this transformation happens in rehearsal, with the other puppeteers unable to resist coming out of their cubbies beneath the bed, or in the bedside trunk, to see the action.

Credit Logan Smith, a seventh grader at The Sage School, with lending himself as a convincing companion to the bunny. The love they have for each other is palpable. Jana Arnold plays Nana, Christine Leslie and Beth Hilles complete the ensemble, and R.L. Rowsey has created an original score. K.O. Ogilvie is stage manager.

The artwork that is the bedroom where the boy and bunny spend their time pretending to be pirates, on cloud hopping missions by plane, and lost in other imaginings, was created by Joe Lavigne and Dennis Rexroad. The duo collaborated with St. Thomas Playhouse for their fall family show, "The Music Man," which runs this weekend, Thursday, Oct. 13 through Oct. 16 at nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.

Simone and Glenn said they chose the story because it is one of those must-reads in children's literature that transcends the ages.

"Touching, but not sad," Glenn said, "We all become the Velveteen Rabbit and want the gentle wisdom of the Skin Horse."

"A story of enchantment," Simone agreed. "For adults, it's a time to remember the magic we all want to see again."

So many ways to catch the rabbit

- The show runs from Thursday, Oct. 20, to Sunday, Oct. 30. at 7 p.m. Matinees on Sunday, Oct. 23, and Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and seniors and $10 for students 18 and under.

- "Pay What you Feel" Preview on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m.

- $10 for $10. Ten front seats are sold nightly one hour before the performance on a first-come, first-served basis for $10 each.

- All the valley's children were extended a special ticket price of $5. Scholarships were available so no-one was turned away. Six student performances are sold out.

Jennifer Liebrum:

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