Full disclosure: “The BFG” is my favorite book. Of all time. It was my first favorite book, and its author, Roald Dahl, was my first favorite author. It was in the third grade, the age when books begin to speak to you, when they reach in, whisper something you’ve always wondered about life but didn’t have the words to express it. It’s when stories find you; it found me.
When revisiting it last weekend, in a wonderfully delightful production by the Theatre of Youth, I was reminded of what spoke to me in Mrs. Hageny’s classroom at Forest Elementary, sitting on the area rug and gazing at her magical impersonations of our heroine Sophie, the British orphan who befriends the Big Friendly Giant, and who must battle the heinous enemy giants. Hundreds of stories later now, both read and written, my tongue has evolved but my taste remains ever so simple: This is a story about surviving life, living with imagination, embracing change.
Dahl’s work includes far more recognizable names than this relatively small book – “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Witches,” to name a few. But they are all familiar to young readers for their brutal honesty and whimsical charm. In “The BFG,” especially, we cradle lonely Sophie with not a bowl of soup but a dose of reality, insisting that life’s truths not be hidden from her, but used as fuel for empowerment and self-reliance. Kids are trusted to not only accept cruel fate but to save themselves and each other. What collaborations Dahl and Maurice Sendak might have dreamed up in a more perfect world.
Our production in the Allendale Theatre hits all of these most important points with TOY’s well-oiled theatrical voice. Design takes a starring role in Meg Quinn’s direction, with help from the Bold, Fabulous Genius of resident set designer Ken Shaw and puppet designer Adam Kreutinger.
Shaw’s individual set pieces are less extraordinary on their own (though attractive and serviceable), but are really only half of a larger design scheme that works in beautiful concert with Kreutinger’s flawless puppets and masks. Given the impossible scale of these characters’ sizes, and the human-size proportions of their actors, every human character is portrayed by both an actor and an identical hand-controlled figurine.
Those who have seen Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” will recognize this parallel performance, in which we see and hear the costumed human but are drawn to the miniature doll in their hands instead. Head masks, which are really more like oversized helmets, worn by the gang of nasty, idiotic giants, evoke a dry, character wit that is both very British and very satirical. Add a scrumptious performance of Queen Elizabeth by the indomitable Kathleen Betsko Yale, and you begin to crack the maturity of Dahl’s British wit. I’m sure there are more than a few dissertations floating around about the author’s political voice.
Kreutinger’s design wit is largely at play with these inventive and thoroughly effective designs. With this sleight-of-hand stagecraft at work, we have no problem picturing the otherwise diminutive Kurt Guba as a big and friendly giant, nor the similarly sized Arin Lee Dandes as his darling Sophie. It’s classic magic, kids, and it works like a charm.
Guba and Dandes are both wonderful, and even if Guba is perhaps just too agreeable to be even a friendly giant – a giant, nonetheless – he is charming as ever. Yale’s turn as the queen (a role she also played in the theater’s 2006 production) is pure gold; amplified and literal for young audiences, and nuanced and witty for adults. I barked out more than a few unexpected laughs, garnering some concerned looks from my tiny neighbors.
The funnier, swifter second act ultimately underlines the first act’s comparatively glacial speed; the first act has less action and more conversation, sure, but also suffers from uninspired blocking. You may not realize it until after intermission, but at least by then you’re slapping your knee, so it’s not a huge deal. You’ll feel the difference, though.
The only thing I find missing from this joyous, fun excursion is a beautiful, intimate moment from the last page of the book, in which the BFG recounts to Sophie how she saved a kingdom of children from an unkind fate. I’ll save the breathtaking last line for you to discover on your own, in print. I think you’ll really like it.
What: “The BFG”
Who: Theatre of Youth
Where: Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St.
When: Through March 29
Info: theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400
Ages: For ages 6 and up