James and the Giant Peach | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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James and the Giant Peach


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Playwrights' Center

Transferring James and the Giant Peach to the stage is like reproducing the ceiling of the Sistine chapel on a postage stamp. There's simply too much of it.

This classic children's book by Roald Dahl is wildly imaginative. It begins with James's mother and father getting eaten by a rhinoceros. Sent to live with his aunts Sponge and Spiker, James is delivered from his misery by a queer little man who gives him a bag full of bits of crocodile tongues, which, after James spills them, enlarge everything they touch, including insects in the grass and a peach on the tree above him.

The next day James follows a tunnel in the gigantic peach and discovers a peach pit inhabited by human-size worms and bugs--Old Green Grasshopper, Ladybug, Centipede, Spider, Earthworm, Silkworm, and Glo-worm, who serves as the resident light bulb. They decide to roll the peach downhill, squash Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in the process, and end up in the sea, where sharks begin to devour the juicy fruit. Thinking fast, James has Silkworm and Spider start spinning rope that can be used to lasso the seagulls flying overhead. When enough gulls have been harnessed, they lift the peach out of the sea and tow it to New York, where it ends up impaled on the Empire State Building.

Trying to reproduce all this onstage is a formidable challenge. Doing it realistically would require lavish special effects and an enormous budget. But director Daniel Michael Frazier is working on a tiny stage in a storefront theater, with a budget that must be almost nonexistent. Not surprisingly, he opted for simplicity. Yet he has still managed to stage a vivid production by relying heavily on the imagination of the audience.

In this version the peach is a giant orange orb projected on a curtain. The insects are dressed in plain jogging suits and identified almost exclusively by color--black for Spider, green for Grasshopper, orange for Ladybug, and so on. Centipede, however, wears several paper boots stuck to her outfit with Velcro.

The script uses a narrator to recount the bizarre story. So Jennifer Blitz, breathless with excitement, moves through the audience, telling the story to transfixed individual children, often bringing her face to within inches of theirs. The technique works--even a squirming toddler grew attentive when faced with Blitz.

The cast members echo Blitz's style, giving loud, broad performances of their own that keep pulling the children back to the story. Lea Tolub as Aunt Sponge and Susan Berliner as Aunt Spiker ham it up wonderfully, creating cartoon characters that were a big hit with the kids I was with. Alice Kinsella (Centipede) ably performs the only two songs in the show, and Joel Marshall (James), with his rosy cheeks, is a picture of bright- eyed boyhood.

Still, James and the Giant Peach doesn't make a very good play. But the play does put the spotlight on this gem of a book, and it reminds parents that children can imagine all sorts of wonders when guided by a good story.

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