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The Kids Deserve Better

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Sophie's Stories

Raven Theatre

Dear Sophie,

I seem to have painted myself into a corner. I agreed to review Sophie's Stories, the children's production based on three of your favorite bedtime stories, and didn't consider what I would do if it turned out that I didn't enjoy it. I mean, I should have thought to myself what kind of monster I'd look like, panning this love letter of a show sent by a pair of doting parents--Raven Theatre founders Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro--to their eight-year-old daughter.

But I didn't think about it, and here I am. The best I can do is apologize, Sophie, because all in all I really didn't care for Sophie's Stories.

Not that it's your fault. I don't object to your taste in literature. Well, maybe a little. The first of the three pieces, an adaptation of Marjorie Weinman Sharmat's "Walter the Wolf," is strenuously naive: a PC fable in which young Walter learns--of all things!--not to bite other animals. This may be a fine rule for you and me, Sophie, but if wolves don't bite they don't eat. Granted, Walter's motive for sinking his teeth into Naomi Beaver's tail is pretty tawdry--he's essentially acting as a hit man on behalf of Naomi's grasping sister, Regina. Still, Sharmat's conclusion, that having big fangs doesn't mean you have to use them, would ultimately lead to a mighty thin Walter. And I don't think it's fair to anthropomorphize animals to death even in the service of a social ideal, do you? For a more realistic treatment of the same subject, I suggest you ask your parents to read you Jack London's The Call of the Wild, though not before bedtime.

Truth be told, the second playlet--a sort of semimusical based on "Pepito's Story" by Eugene Fern--is also fairly saccharine, Sophie. But at least it doesn't ask its characters to disown their essential natures. On the contrary, Fern's tale of a boy ostracized for his love of dancing celebrates individuality, offering the poorly expressed but good-hearted argument that "if every child were like every other, you wouldn't know who was sister or brother."

From where I sat--which happened to be one row down and two seats over from a kid who spent a good deal of time pummeling the chair in front of him--the most impressive of your selections was the final one. Taking off from a story by Lisl Weil, "Monkey Trouble" offers a jungle version of The Man Who Came to Dinner: a sweet, clumsy elephant named Dudley opens his home to the monkey on whose toe he's inadvertently stepped. Naturally the monkey's nowhere near as bad off as she pretends--and naturally she takes exuberant advantage of the situation when Dudley's not around, gorging on sweets and primate frappuccinos while dancing to 70s disco.

"Monkey Trouble" works in large part because it's the least pious of the three stories. Where the chief villain of "Walter the Wolf"--an entrepreneurial fox named Wyatt--is merely stupid, and those in "Pepito's Story" remain an amorphous communal blob of intolerance, Monkey is allowed to be cunningly, happily bad. What's more, though "Monkey Trouble" has a moral point to make, it doesn't make it with the shimmery earnestness and certitude of the other playlets. In fact, we can't even be sure at the end whether Dudley himself got the point. Say it's my age talking, Sophie, but a bewildered hero seems truer to me than one who learns his lesson in a single try.

The other thing that makes "Monkey Trouble" work is the fact that Alison Aske plays Monkey--and clearly relishes the role. Whether whimpering ostentatiously over her toe or doing an ecstatic end-zone boogie in celebration of her good fortune, Aske's Monkey is an endearingly amoral beast and the most vivid character in any of the three stories.

But then Aske brings an exceptional vividness to her roles throughout. With all-devouring eyes and a comparatively strong command of her physical instrument, she turns Walter's mom into a fierce old New York matron and adds an element of sorcery to Pepito's dance. Where her fellow cast members are content to offer their young audience a series of oafish, patronizing cartoons, she creates characters. Without her, the show is a mess.

And that's probably what bothers me most about Sophie's Stories, Sophie: It's a mess. A sloppy thing with underrehearsed songs, half-worked-out choreography, and half-thought-out bouts of audience participation. I have nothing against low-budget theater, which this certainly is, but I greatly mind the overly casual, close-enough-for-children attitude that appears to have shaped this production. Please forgive me, Sophie.

Yours,

The Monster Who Visited Your Theater

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Menendian.

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