Actors are animals. That's the theme of this week's hayride, which takes us to a happy barnyard and a dreary backstage rat's nest.
Over at Dallas Children's Theater, they're doing Charlotte's Web, with a charming cast donning the fur and feathers of all who populate the farm in E.B. White's beloved parable of life and death. Out at Richland College's Fannin Hall, the Classical Acting Company opens its season with the premiere of the new play Shakespeare's Keeper, a one-man grumble set behind the scenes at the Globe Theatre.
Which earns the blue ribbon as play of the week? The one starring Wilbur the pig and the literate arachnid named Charlotte. Directed by DCT founder Robyn Flatt, this production weaves a dreamy spell, doing all things good theater should: entertain, engage the emotions and elevate the spirit. It's also beautiful to look at, with the action unfolding under scenic designer Zak Herring's gleaming, 40-foot-high welded steel web, illuminated to perfection by Linda Blase's lighting scheme. To use one of Charlotte's words: Terrific.
For wee theatergoers, Charlotte's Web works as a sweet, easy-to-follow fable about the magical friendships that grow among a little girl, Fern Arable (played at the performance reviewed by Katy Tye, who alternates with Kendall Howen), a runt piglet named Wilbur (played with goofy guilelessness by Karl Schaeffer) and Charlotte (gorgeous Trisha Miller Smith), the lady spider who saves Wilbur from the sausage factory by writing startling adjectives about him in her webs. Fern spends long hours eavesdropping on the squeals and squawks that make lively conversations inside her uncle's barn.
Beyond the talking animals, White's story offers more trenchant messages for grown-ups to consider. Its opening sentence--"Where's Papa going with that ax?"--introduces death into the bucolic setting. Death, and the fear of it, remains a dominant theme right up to the touching moment when Charlotte's baby spiders take over her web and greet Wilbur with their mother's familiar "Salutations."
Parents die and children grow up to take their place. That's the natural rhythm of life, told by White's characters through one year on Zuckerman's farm. Among the animals, it's Wilbur who must learn the toughest lessons of childhood, including the value of selfless acts. Among the two-legged, it's gawky Fern, who early in the story shudders at the thought of attention from boys, but by the end is skipping off to ride the Ferris wheel at the county fair with Henry Fussy. They do grow up so fast, don't they?
Charlotte's Web also comments cunningly on the power of persuasion. Charlotte saves Wilbur's life through advertising, spinning the words "Some pig" and "Humble" into her webs. "People believe almost everything they see in print," sighs Charlotte. The "miracle" of these web sights convinces Farmer Zuckerman (Chad Patrick Smith) that Wilbur might be more valuable alive as a tourist attraction than served up on a plate under pineapple slices. Only Mrs. Zuckerman (Becca Shivers) seems to notice that instead of being amazed at their remarkable pig, they ought to pay some attention to the talents of the writer. But as usual, nobody gives the writer any credit. (This stage version, by the way, was gracefully adapted from White's book by Joseph Robinette.)
DCT's Charlotte's Web sprawls across the Baker Theater's triple stages with more than 20 actors (the adults are Equity performers) playing both humans and beasties. Much attention has been paid to creating the illusion of creatures without resorting to theme-park obviousness. Designer Leila Heise gives us an old ewe (Jody Rudman) wrapped in a fuzzy 1950s-style coat over black stockings and long black gloves. The geese (Mariel Mickens and Cole Spivey) strut on in split-tailed morning coats and bright orange sneakers; she wears a purple feathered hat. As Templeton the rat, Derik Webb skitters around in a tattered waistcoat, baggy trousers and a backwards cap. Wilbur's pink overalls need just a hint of curly pink tail in back to communicate piglet. By simply suggesting animal silhouettes, the actors remain free to explore their characters artistically through movement and voice. Webb and Rudman are especially good at this.
In the leads, Schaeffer keeps his Wilbur just dumb enough to be lovable, like the Wilbur in the book. His snorfles and "eynk-eynks" sound authentically porcine. Miller, in a sparkly black bodysuit, navigates her giant web with athletic aplomb. She speaks in a dark, throaty timbre that just fits a sexy spider.
Charlotte's Web, published in 1952, keeps being rediscovered. The second animated version of it arrives in movie theaters next year, starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Kathy Bates, Robert Redford and a dozen other stars. As they say in showbiz, this is one story that has legs. In this case, at least eight of them.
At the beginning of Classical Acting Company's Shakespeare's Keeper, a new play by Chris Pickles, Nathan Dabbs, a rustic backstage worker at London's Globe Theatre in June 1613, turns his back to the audience and takes a lengthy piss into a brass bucket. From there, the rest of this one-man, two-act show goes right down the pipe.
As if two and a half hours of Shakespeare weren't enough to bore a person to distraction, along comes Keeper, two and a half hours of one ugly guy talking to himself about Shakespeare and repeating, verrrry slooooowly, long chunks from many of his plays. Pickles' conceit is that Dabbs, a brown-toothed hobbit who used to be an actor but now runs props for the Globe, thinks the company's star, Richard Burbage, too old and fat to play leads anymore.
"Dabbie," played by Classical Acting co-founder and frequent lead actor Matthew Gray, stomps around in a junk-strewn room behind the Globe stage, calling Burbage a "lazy plonker" spoiled by success. Dabbs thinks just as poorly of "country bumpkin" William "Shakefart." He credits Christopher Marlowe with writing Hamlet and blasts Shakespeare for plagiarizing it. He has the original manuscript to prove it. It's around there somewhere, if only he could find it amid the detritus of prop crowns, spears and beer bottles.
Shakespeare's Keeper is a play only a drama prof could love, a bloated collection of obscure historical anecdotes strung together with dialogue plucked from Macbeth, Hamlet, Merry Wives of Windsor, Merchant of Venice and the rest. Along with actual stories about Burbage, Will Kemp and other period actors, Pickles works in fictional, and less interesting, ditties about the Dabbs character. Like how stealing a spoon got him blackballed from the company. That one's a pisser.
With a masterful English character actor such as Michael Gambon as Dabbs, this play might light up a stage. But Gray, too young and lumpish to make Dabbs anything more than annoying, never generates any sparks. He's just up there performing for himself, never establishing any strong connection with the audience. We never care about Dabbs--part actor's fault, part playwright's. Thrashing around the hexagonal stage (nicely dressed by designer Jennifer Owens and prop mistress Andrea Redmon), fake-laughing and fake-crying hour after hour, Gray's vanity starts to show. Certainly this actor would never be cast as Hamlet or Shylock--or any of the female Shakespearean characters whom Dabbs impersonates--anywhere else.
At last, Dabbs says the magic words: "All our revels now are ended." Could it be over? But no, Pickles relishes false endings, so there are still another 15 or 20 minutes and a long segment from Midsummer Night's Dream to go before Shakespeare's Keeper turns us loose. Honestly, it's a struggle to stay awake through it all. Suffering from insomnia? Buy a ticket. This is pure theatrical Ambien.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.