Winnie the wimp

Dallas Children's Theater wrings as much life as it can from A.A. Milne's limp tales

Where would children's literature be without the Brits?
Fairy tales and other traditional stories aside, it's British writers, most of them active from the late 1800s to about 1950, who created the canon of works for children that most of us grew up with. Take away Lewis Carroll, George McDonald, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, J.M. Barrie, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and A.A. Milne (what a lot of initials these people have), and the bookshelf in the kids' room is as good as bare. No Mr. Toad, no Peter Pan, no Peter Rabbit, no Mad Hatter, no Bilbo Baggins, no Aslan, no Wart, and no Winnie-the-Pooh--and very little adventure or humor, either.

What characterizes the works of most of these writers is that they can be enjoyed by right-thinking adults as well as by children. The two exceptions, in my book, are Barrie and Milne. Their yucky-sweet diction is only palatable to kids with the highest possible tolerance for saccharin. One need say no more than that Peter Pan and Pooh have actually been improved upon by Disney, that great manufacturer of treacle and mangler of children's tales.Which is not to say that Milne isn't as popular as ever. When We Were Very Young, a slender volume of goopy children's verses published in 1924 in which Pooh makes his first appearance, is still in print today. Milne's stories have been translated into 31 languages and have gone through various film and video permutations as well. In 1988, an infatuated collector spent $13,200 at Christie's of New York for a first edition Winnie-the-Pooh inscribed by the author to J.M. Barrie.

Pooh mania lives on, right here in Dallas, as the Dallas Children's Theater production of Winnie-the-Pooh attests. Directed by Trudy Wheeler, an assistant professor of theatre arts on loan from the University of Louisville, the musical is adapted by Kristen Sergel, with songs by Allan Friedman. Milne's poetry provides the lyrics.

DCT is the best bet for children's theater in the city, commanding a $1.2 million annual budget and enjoying an attendance of about 150,000 a year. Some of that money definitely shows up onstage, and the set design by Zak Herring on this production is an example. A simple but impressive recreation of the "Hundred Aker Wood" rooted on an ample stage at El Centro College, the set features tall trees, a lofty owl's perch, and a revolving rabbit hutch. The full-body costumes by Felicia Denny-Kolshorn make the characters as stuffed animal-like and as true to the original E.H. Shepard drawings as is reasonably possible using human actors.

All of this was enough to jazz the considerable crowd of small fry and their wards who showed up for a recent Sunday matinee. Unfortunately, once the play starts, it slowly sinks in on both the adults and the kids that nothing in particular is going to happen.

The story concerns Pooh's desultory quest to get honey from some bees, and Kanga's determination to hang on to Piglet to make sure he's thoroughly sanitized. There's whimsy (a little of which goes a long way), but there's no action and no real conflict. Children are as riveted by conflict as the rest of us, but Pooh lacks dragons, pirates, grasping weasels, or any other villain against which a hero can measure his or her bravery and wits. The putative threats, such as Kanga and her "bottle of poison," always turn out to be cupcakes in the end.

This absence of darkness was deliberate on Milne's part. A veteran of World War I (as was his illustrator, Shepard), Milne once said he wished the years 1914 to 1918 could be struck from his memory and his biography. He wanted to create a place where his own son, Christopher Robin, could play in perpetual light and security. What he neglected to consider is that danger and dread are generally necessary companions in our journey through books, though most of us would just as soon avoid them in real life.

In the absence of conflict, or even slapstick, the actors have to strain to put some life into Pooh. All of the actors are capable, with Vickie White as Piglet and John Wright as Owl displaying fine singing and speaking voices, respectively. Given more to play than cuteness, there is no question they could have had the audience shrieking with laughter or screaming in (pleasurable) fright. Instead, some pretty gung-ho youngsters were looking a bit limp toward the end, like sails in a listless wind.

Upcoming DTC productions should fare better, however. The 1995-96 season will include productions of Bambi, Jack and the Beanstalk, Witch, Lyle the Crocodile, and Little Women. Parents would be remiss in not taking their kids to at least one of these shows.

Fans and boosters of live theater in Dallas will want to take note of the Leon Rabin Live Theatre Awards to be presented at 7 p.m. on Monday, October 30, at the Park Cities Playhouse in Snider Plaza.

Presented by the 21-theater Dallas Theatre League, the awards honor those involved in an artistic capacity in a Dallas-area theatrical production in the last year.

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