"Swiss Family Robinson" was published in English in 1814 and has since been adapted so often and with such varying degrees of success that it can be difficult to ascertain the appeal and educational purpose of the original work.
The novel is a breathtaking survival tale of an ingenious family that sets off to help colonize New Guinea in an effort to prevent their sons from being drafted into the Napoleonic Wars.
When shipwrecked in a typhoon, the family -- mom, dad, four boys and two mastiffs -- lands on an uninhabited island, where their pragmatic naturalism, ingenuity and Protestant ethic ensure survival. Over the years, the island becomes their home in every sense of the word -- so much so that when rescue comes, it's a mixed blessing.
A dramatic adaptation of "Swiss Family Robinson" opened at the Theatre of Youth this week, minus one of the sons and both dogs. Also missing, of necessity, are their impossible-to-dramatize interactions with the elements. The sense of passing time is missing as well, along with the accompanying poignancy of rescue.
Instead, it is the human elements that hold sway: the family's internal struggles with parenting, brotherhood, sibling rivalry, romance, growth and maturity.
The original external conflicts are evident as well: wild beasts, Malaysian pirates and a cunning castaway all intrude upon the family's island idyll.
While the Family Robinson must contend with the vagaries of sea, weather and sand (700 pounds of the stuff covers on the Allendale stage), the island is loaded with lobsters, fish, antelope, wild boar (the other white meat), crabs and fruit. In addition, the ship's food stores, Mom's outfits, lots of furniture and an entire library have washed up on shore along with the family.
All of this wealth and the ensuing jolliness implies that the family has been marooned for only a few months. Absent the original sense of terror, struggle and clever adaptation, the production must rely on technical elements to engage and hold audience attention.
And the technical elements are splendid. The island set designed by Kenneth Shaw, who also designed the costumes, recalls a jungle painting by Henri Rousseau. Lighting designer Brian Cavanagh works his magic as well, smoothly moving the action back and forth between sunlit tropical paradise and a dark and slithering netherworld.
As to the actors, Brian LaTulip is pleasant and charming as a warm, good-humored but strict father whose knowledge of woodworking, gift for rapid adaptation and understanding of monkey life serves his family well. Christina Rausa as Mother -- likewise dear and with an endless Donna Reed smile -- hasn't much to do but transform the island into a dining room in Bern.
There are problems, however.
The shipwreck that opens the play is stiff and depends upon facial expressions and screaming to convey terror. Other special effects, such as the fireworks and the battle scenes, were also disappointing.
Overall, the production is physically engaging, bright and upbeat. With more attention to the characters and a few technical adjustments, it would be much more than that. Most of the difficulties won't interfere with the theater's educational mission, however.
Swiss Family Robinson
Survival adventure tale by J.D. Wyss, adapted for the stage by James DeVita.
Starring Brian LaTulip and Christina Rausa. Directed by Meg Quinn for Theatre of Youth.