It Takes a Village
by Leroy Thomson
originally printed in the July/August issue of American Theatre
James Still, author of the year's most unlikely new play for young people, says it was his friend Peter Brosius who inspired him to do it--like a cartle-prod might inspire a thoroughbred. Beginning four years ago, Brosius, artistic director of Honolulu Theatre for Youth (and recently appointed artistic director of Minneapolis's Children's Theatre Company), repeatedly mailed Still the John Gardner novella In the Suicide Mountains, urging him to see this weird little tale of four suicidal medieval misfits as grist for a youth-oriented theatre piece.
Eventually, and fortunately, Still succumbed. Following workshops last year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Robert Redford's Sundance Playwrights Laboratory in Utah and the Honolulu company, Still's adaptation premiered in March under Brosius's direction for an audience of cheering, laughing children.Children? Cheering and laughing about suicide? Still believes that most adults grossly underestimate a child's ability to understand seriousness and complex ideas. The playwright focuses on Gardner's three central characters, all of whom desperately wish to be accepted by their drought-stricken village: Chudu the Goatman, a hunchbacked dwarf who becomes an easy target for the village's fear; the king's son, Prince Christopher, who has a divine gift for the fiddle but whose father demands he master the arts of war; and Armida, who can no longer blacksmlith with her father because her new stepmother commands her to wear dresses and giggle like her own daughter, Clarella.
Each of the three hits the nadir of despair and takes to the mountain to commit suicide. There, they encounter the monster who caused the villlage's drought, the Six-Fingered Man. Working together and utilizing the very differences which banished them from the village, they conquer the beast, thereby ending the drought. They return home, glorified by the village--now "special" rather than "different."
Still resurrects the purgative ritual of theatre in much the same way Gardner uses the conceits of the medieval fable and fairy tale. Mining the rich vein of the "hero's journey," Gardner's novella plays on the stylized language of Western folklore and medieval literary conventions. Although Still claims he abandoned these conceits to concentrate on the theatricality of the story, he achieves in sound and action what Gardner does in words. (Hoflywood might call his version Joseph Campbell-meets-the-Brothers Grimm-meets-Sondheim.)
After reading his dramatization to his niece's fourth-grade class, Still says he clearly began to see the work as "the last surviving song of the village." He and Brosius invited Michael Keck, with whom Still had collaborated on several previous projects, to create a musical score-which sounds a little like a Slavic-New AgeWorld Music opera, and sustains the musical's mythic tone admirably.
The show's vitality is captured by Joseph D. Dodd's stunningly stark set of intersecting planes within a black box-a minimalist, almost cubist, landscape. The sound of poetry, the unrelenting rhythm, evoke a sense of ancient, sacred rites-as if we were listening to our village elders perform a weighty, sonorous tale before a communal fire.
Playright Leroy Thomson is theatre critic for Honolulu's alternative weekly newspaper, the Honolulu Weekly.
posted 23 April 1998