THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE
WHAT IF THE FROG DOES FEEL IT?
April Snow Productions
at Strawdog Theatre
There's some magic going on at Lifeline Theatre: its production of The Cricket in Times Square. James Sie's adaptation of George Selden's 1960 Newberry Award-winning children's story literally sings.
The tale itself is a classic of simplicity. A Connecticut cricket named Chester, lost in a Times Square subway station, is befriended by Mario, a young boy whose family owns a less-than-successful newsstand. Mario's mother is not real keen on Chester, but when his musical talent emerges--Chester, it turns out, can play Italian opera by rubbing his wings together--she turns into his biggest fan. As Chester begins to draw huge crowds to the newsstand, Mario's family makes its fortune.
Selden's humanist story has its share of messages, but it never sacrifices the storyteller's craft. It is, in fact, a multicultural tale. Mario's family is Italian, but his best advice comes from an old Chinese merchant, Sai Fong. Chester, a country cricket, befriends urban stalwarts Tucker Mouse and Harry the Cat. When Chester expresses surprise that a cat and mouse can be best friends, Harry tells him that they've outgrown that old antagonistic behavior.
But none of this is heavy-handed or propagandistic. The language is lovely, full of awe and reflective of the tale's generous spirit. In fact, there are no bad guys in this story. Everybody's got a heart: Chester's glad to help Mario's family. Tucker and Harry celebrate Chester's unique talent. Sai Fong is touched by Mario's relationship with the cricket. And newsstand customer Mr. Smedley, who might in a more contemporary tale have decided to manage Chester and make tons of moola off the little fellow, describes his delight in Chester with a letter to the New York Times that guarantees the cricket's celebrity.
In addition to good material, Lifeline is blessed with a terrific ensemble for Cricket. An energetic bunch, they're obviously having a great time. James E. Grote, playing Tucker, is a perfect guide through this adventure--friendly, funny, but not at all coy. Mara Polster takes on the dual roles of Harry and Mama with much gusto and versatility: she screeches into song as Harry, then plucks heartstrings with Mama's operatic turn. And Dawn Bach, as Chester, elicits sighs with her violin playing.
The staging for Cricket is open and uncommonly flexible. The set works on two levels--human and animal--and the shifts between them are swift, unobtrusive, and quite clever. In his directorial debut, Sie manages everything with a brisk, wondrous touch.
Less successful in its attempt at childlike wonder is What if the Frog Does Feel It?, a very adult story produced too earnestly by a group of college friends and playing for two weeks at Strawdog Theatre. Written by George Downer, the play features him and Charlie Fersko in dual roles: Downer as a playful college student and hysterical film director, Fersko as an uptight theater professor and egotistical actor.
Fast-paced, often amusing, and generally well-acted, Frog is nonetheless too obvious. The black-and-white characters provide no middle ground. The play does little more than set up a simple philosophical conflict by placing them on the set and allowing them to joust for a bit. The student's clever, if a bit coy at times; the prof is stiff, if not occasionally plain dense.
Though we know just where Downer's sympathies lie, the resolution to this conflict is actually more subtle than we might have expected. That's to his credit. Frog isn't much in many ways, but it has a real intelligence at work. And that bodes well for this young group.