The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is a fairly newly opened, gorgeous...interesting venue. Since its reopening, at least it seems to me, the venue is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be. Theatre is not it's only programing, as it also features many varied types of musical productions, dance shows, legendary performers in solo pieces and more. The run lengths range from a few days to weeks, so whenever I hear of a gem at this venue, I hop to it, as it may not be there for long. That can sometimes be confusing. Last summer I was lucky to watch Deaf West's stunning, emotional production of Spring Awakening at the WA before its successful Broadway transplant. The WA has mounted a number of successful projects, I'm just still unclear of the overall identity of the venue/company/arts organization.
On this particular evening, I didn't know until walking into the venue that this was a family production. Which, considering that I brought my friend Kristen, whom I had never brought to the theatre with me before, I was a little bit nervous. I got lucky, because she is a very upbeat, open-minded musician (drummer specifically) that I know through our roles in the Leadership Council of the Emerging Arts Leaders of Los Angeles. Coincidentally, she was pretty much the perfect person to bring to this show.
Anyway, 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips transports us to autumn 1944, to a small town in the English countryside, where the townspeople must not only accommodate evacuees from central London, but allow Allied American soldiers to occupy their farms and livelihoods. Lily Tregenza, a spritely, curious, ambitious eleven-year-old (played by Katy Owen) rules her family's farm, confides in her best friend and cat, Tips, and has no plans to let the new boy at school, Barry (Adam Sopp) kiss her any time soon. Put up by the Knee-high Theatre in collaboration with Berkeley Rep, the show combines an incredibly gifted ensemble of musicians with amazingly life-like puppets to tell a story of perseverance, loyalty, coping, friendship and love during wartime. In a way that is appropriate for kids (and above) the production does an impressive, musical job exploring what a scary stage in history this was for everyone, families, soldiers, parents, children and even animals.
There were things I loved about the show, and there were just a few things I could have done without. Overall I ended up enjoying it far more than I had expected. There were some parts I thought personally could have been cut down in length a bit, possibly some even cut out, but I could also see how a child in the audience could wish this show would go on forever.
Plain and simple: this show is a lot of fun. I was telling Kristen that I wished I could see this show with kids, or watch a student matinee performance because this production is a testament of how children can be reached though theatre. Some kids (*cough* like me *cough*) would walk out of this show beaming, able to tell you a lot more about World War 2 than if they had been sitting in a classroom. So yes, I wish I had a little one to bring to this production. Kristen and I loved the music, and on top of it sounding awesome (even the transition/downtime music is great), almost every single talented cast member is also a part of the band at some point! How they orchestrated the performers between band-playing time and character playing time is amazing and the music is also a super cool testament to the era. We get to see some incredible puppetry, highlighting the importance of pets and animals to the community. It should be noted that this storytelling was inspired by the book War Horse, whose theatrical adaptation will always move me to tears. We get to see men playing women and some women playing men; it's all very silly and fun. We get to see some heart-thumping swing dancing by the American soldiers, played by Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe, that will at least get your toe tapping if not your whole body grooving. The set is abstract but beautifully designed and serves the constant movement of the play. There is also a clever use of galvanized tubs in act II used to demonstrate a submarine attack that will certainly get the kids' attention. But the Englishness of the play was ultimately what made me fall for it. I cannot tell a lie; I'll see almost any show imported from across the pond. So gosh-darn charming. This story reminds us that even though we come from different countries, we have the same concerns, fears and dreams. Plus it's important for us, and our children to see the affects of war on a country other than our own.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." MLK Jr, as quoted by Lily Tregenza
Katy Owen's Lily Treganza is definitely a highlight of the production. Her intensely specified physicality combined with her almost animalistic vocalizations are almost nothing you've ever seen before. But through her crazy antics and explosive reactions, she transports you to the curiosity, exploration, and discoveries within preadolescence. Just when you thought you had blocked all humiliating memories of eleven-year-old life, she zaps you there. The girl is a force of nature, her physical acting is on another level, she is fearless in her character and I look forward to seeing what she does with the company she helped found, Difficult Stage. I would LOVE to see some of their work.
What does the show make me want to change about myself? It makes me want to pay more attention to the young ones. Sometimes we write off kids' issues. They can't find their cat? So what, there's a war going on. But their problems are important to them; if they weren't, they wouldn't be upset in the first place. As adults, it's our responsibility, it's our job to at least try to understand them, as they try to make sense of us, why we make them to eat their vegetables, why they have to go to school, why wars are going on. So once again, the theatre makes me want to be a better listener, this time specifically with kids, because we can never know how their childhood experience will shape their adult life, and their potential to change the world.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips runs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through March 5. Have fun, bring a little friend to experience the magic of theatre and take a step into the world of WW2.