By TAMAR NEUMANN: I often forget that theatre can be magical. That was theatre’s original purpose—creating an enchanting world where you could escape your everyday problems. Now, theatre is often used for a different purpose, because movies provide escape and theatricality, but when I see a show at The Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) I am reminded of theatre at its root. First, there’s something delightful about showing up at a theatre where children are running around. Maybe it’s because seeing children out on a Friday night for an evening of theatre is unusual, but I think it has more to do with their infectious energy. As you wait for the show to start, your own anticipation builds along with excited whispers of children all around you. And as the show starts and continues, you can’t help but enjoy all the zany moments because their laughter is irresistible and draws you in to the world created on the stage.
The Scarecrow and the Servant is the most recent production at the CTC. Like many of their great plays, this one was specifically commissioned by them. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, it is based on the book by Phillip Pullman. As members of the Twin Cities community, we are lucky enough to experience this play’s world premiere. The CTC often produces new plays that are rich in content specifically designed for children—a rare treat in the theatre community. This particular play is a story about a scarecrow who comes to life and subsequently finds himself in all sorts of scrapes. Lucky for him, he has his servant, Jack, to help him along the way. Of course, there is an evil villain, Cercorelli, standing in their way, but through it all they learn about friendship, loyalty, and the importance of the environment. Lucky for us, the last part about the environment is subtly mixed in with the plot twists and jokes so you don’t notice there might be something more to this play than just a comical scarecrow.
Even if there wasn’t an underlying message, a comical scarecrow would be enough. Dean Holt, as Scarecrow, truly brings the magic out in this play. He is delightfully innocent and perfectly happy. Nothing gets him down, and Holt plays this innocence and happiness truthfully which endears him to the audience. While it is his innocence and the belief in good in everyone that constantly gets him in trouble, it’s also what makes him so lovable. He is the friend you wish you had. Holt should also get a special commendation for performing the entire show on short stilts. He made running and dancing on short sticks look effortless.
Holt did have some help making this show sing. Brandon Brooks (Jack) played the straight man to Holt’s zany scarecrow. Without him, many of Holt’s lines would have fallen flat. And Gerald Drake (Cercorelli) gave us a plot. Every children’s theatre piece needs some sort of villain and Drake’s villain was perfect in his utter ridiculousness, but also in his clever calculations. Of course he is going to be defeated, but it’s how he gets defeated that makes the show fun.
But it wasn’t’ just the cast that helped to create this magical world. G.W. Mercier (scenic and costume designer) helped create a world where anything was possible. It wasn’t that the sets were over the top or unbelievable, it was actually that there were just small touches that helped create an air of fantastical possibility. In a world where every character is human, but somehow still looks like a cartoon, it’s easy to believe that a scarecrow can come to life.
In the end, it’s not the message about the environment you will remember. Like Wall-E, you will remember the environment is involved, but you will choose to focus on the robot, or in this case, the scarecrow. And that’s what’s truly magical about a children’s theatre. It can teach us lessons in ways that, if truly done right, are more powerful than almost any other kind of theatre.
The Scarecrow and His Servant, by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the book by Philip Pullman. March 11 – April 6, 2014 at the Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets: $10 and up; purchase tickets at www.childrenstheatre.org or 612.874.0400.