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Imagination Stage The Wind in the Willows

By • Jul 14th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
The Wind in the Willows
Imagination Stage
Lerner Family Theater, Bethesda, MD
Through August 14th
90 minutes with one intermission
$10-$22
Reviewed July 9th, 2011

Kenneth Grahame’s classic book, The Wind in the Willows, takes place in early 20th century Edwardian England, just as the motorcar is becoming available. Richard Hellesen’s musical adaptation, with music and lyrics by Michael Silversher, is the eighth such stage version, premiered in 2004 at the South Coast Repertory in California. The story, set along a quiet rural area of the Thames River, follows timid Mole (Christopher Wilson) as he decides to leave spring-cleaning behind and venture forth into the world above. There, he meets relaxed and carefree Ratty (Vaughn Irving), the unflappable and gruff but kind Mr. Badger (Doug Wilder) and the infamous and seemingly unstoppable Mr. Toad (Sasha Olinick). We see their friendship develop over the course of this utterly charming and magical production for children and adults alike.

A supporting ensemble Maya Jackson, Phillip Reid, Matthew Schleigh and Tia Shearer brings the river and other creatures (Rabbit, Weasels, Stoats and more) inhabiting this magical forest to life with Krissie Marty’s combination of gently choreographed dance-pantomime-puppetry and the actors’ highly stylized characterizations. The talented, tightly knit cast of eight breathes life into the tale, giving wings to artistic director Janet Stanford’s delightfully luscious production.

These charming and sometimes raucous adventures are set against a lovely backdrop of fanciful willow branches and enormous cattails evocative of the unspoiled countryside with which Grahame was familiar, designed by Ethan Sinnott. Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting designs take us from Mole’s home underground to the forest to Toad Hall and eventually to jail.

Costume designer Katie Touart’s representative costumes identify each character as both animal and human, using hints of the animal nature by snippets of fur, choices of fabric or hints of decoration, not limited to Toad’s duster jacket covered in tire tracks. Badger’s hat, Toad’s suit, Mole’s goggles – each of these elements suggests the true nature of the creatures in the story.

The actors make full use of Imagination Stage’s theatre space, with little or no separation between the stage and the house. In essence we are more participants than observers in this cautionary tale of what happens when Toad’s self control is abandoned to the glorious quest after technology and how he must find his way back to his home and friends.

An ensemble of gently rolling gloves and pantomime motion illustrates the River, so central to the plot of the story, with puppet boats providing the simultaneous foreground to illustrate our friends as they travel to visit Badger and Toad. Puppet cars are stand-in representations of the real things, as Toad drives them to their various disastrous fates, also by pantomime, with lights and sound effects providing the rest.

The Wind in the Willows will entertain children and adults alike. Even the jaded Tween in our party was so enthusiastic about the production that she was inspired to suggest giving a copy of the book to her younger cousin. Imagination Stage’s production is suitable for ages four and up, though there were some in the audience who were considerably younger. And – best of all – there isn’t a bad seat in the house!

Director’s Note

Kenneth Grahame belonged to that group of late 19th century British writers who deplored industrialization, the rise of the middle class, the loss of the time-honored ways of the gentry, the unspoiled English countryside and what he saw as the simple, pastoral loveliness and proper values of the past.

Grahame made his name as an essayist writing a thinly veiled autobiography about his own childhood. Farmed out after the death of his parents to an old aunt in Berkshire and growing up with his brothers and sisters largely unsupervised, Grahame cherished the child’s imaginative freedom. He dubbed all adults “Olympians” whom he viewed as wielding power over the young, forcing them ultimately into boring lives of drudgery and responsibility.

He began The Wind in the Willows as a story about the adventures of Mr. Toad for his one and only son, Alistair “Mouse” Grahame. The character of Toad has been interpreted as inspired by the young Mouse himself-willful, changeable and impulsive-yet loved and indulged by his doting parents. The character of Badger echoes what might have been Grahame’s mantra with the dictum: “Honor, gentlemen-duty to a friend.” In the author’s mind, I have no doubt that the ending of The Wind in the Willows represents a triumphant return to the status quo.

However, unlike Grahame, we now see the story through the lens of the last century and through the greatest tragedy of Grahame’s own life-Mouse’s untimely death at the age of 20. The tide of modernism that Grahame so wished to hold back engulfed the 20th century. Britain survived two World Wars but lost its colonies across the world. The dreaded motor cars now clog up cities and highways across England such that you would be hard pressed to find an un-peopled picnic spot along the Thames like the one that Mole and Rat enjoy. The glory days that Grahame so cherished are probably no longer a realistic wish for the future; however, the values of loyalty and friendship, and of the renewable inspiration of nature, are timeless ideals to which this beautiful story reminds us to cleave.

Cast (in alphabetical order)

  • Rat: Vaughn Irving
  • Ensemble: Maya Jackson
  • Toad: Sasha Olinick
  • Weasel: Phillip Reid
  • Chief Weasel: Matthew Schleigh
  • Barge Woman: Tia Shearer
  • Badger: Doug Wilder
  • Mole: Christopher Wilson

Crew

  • Director: Janet Stanford
  • Musical Director: Darius Smith
  • Assistant Director: Sasha Br├Ątt
  • Choreographer: Krissie Marty
  • Scenic Designer: Ethan Sinnott
  • Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin
  • Costume Designer: Katie Touart
  • Sound Designer: Christopher Baine
  • Stage Manager: Kristen J. Bishel
  • Sound Board Operator: Lauren Evans
  • Deck Captain: Karen Bilotti

Disclaimer: Imagination Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

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