By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Speaking of elaborate and colorful design, there are four stage artists--Zak Herring (scenery), Donna Bailey (costume), Linda Blasé (lights) and Marco Salinas (sound)--whose muses are utterly simpatico for African Tales of Earth & Sky. This latest Dallas Children's Theater production of a script by in-house playwright Linda Daugherty is a case where look and sound don't compensate for characterization but catapult the performers onto a new plane where lights and costume and noise seem to inspire them. Thankfully, DCT has the resources to build an African village full of huts, coconut trees, palm leaves and ant hills; they're as vivid as storybook illustrations for three tall tales about the natural world told by our mistress of ceremonies, the invisible prankster fairy Mmoatia (Liz Mikel). She's stuck with gum sap to a tree by mere mortals (Walter Hardts, Tanya Flangin, Renee Michael, Samson Pleasant) who are weary of her jokes at their expense. Bolstering the idea of a collective human unconscious, Mmoatia is a character who's popped up in innumerable times and cultures--one who must tell stories to free herself. Huffing that humans always want to know "Why, why, why?", she sets about to spin tales that explain the lion's roar; the thunder and lightning; and mosquitoes buzzing in people's ears.
Director Robyn Flatt elicits broad, acrobatic performances from her quintet--refreshingly, there's little hip contemporary realism grafted onto their roles--that are just undifferentiated enough to allow the sets and costumes to remain in the foreground. In this way, African Tales of Earth & Sky makes a concession to the oral tradition, when the storyteller became a mere vessel for larger visions of the universe. When Hardts disappears inside the part of a jittery rat with big straw whiskers who fools lion Pleasant, himself wearing a mane of curly straw and a long tail; or mother Thunder (Michael), speaking in an amplified boom that annoys everyone, attempts to rein in bratty, silver-ribboned daughter Lightning (Tanya Flangin), the integrity of the fable is preserved.
African Tales of Earth & Sky runs through July 29 at El Centro College, 801 N. Main, downtown. Call 214-978-0110.