note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
It's only fitting that Boston's Wheelock Family Theatre stage "The Jungle Book" because Kipling wrote both books while he lived in New England, where the British author met and married his Vermont native wife. "The Jungle Book", adapted by Joseph Robinette, has lots of howling wolves and screaming monkeys to delight an audience of pre-schoolers and to engage older children. The good vs. evil (wolves vs. jackals) is exciting for youngsters, but is modulated by Robinette to set vegetarians against meat-eaters, all vying for Mowgli the wolf-boy's affections. Compelling food for thought, that, for the adults in the audience.
Robinette creates a parallel story about a young Kipling at school tormented by the very students who, in those animal scenes, portray nasty jackals. Mowgli, the boy the wolves call their "human cub" learns about survival from a friendly bear, who is his kindly professor in the school scenes, as well as from a helpful panther who likewise doubles as a spunky nun urging the boy to defend himself.
The performances are all charming, especially Tyrone Aiken as the honey-voiced bear and Elyse Garfinkle as a shrewd rock python and as a lookout eagle. John Davin is regal and fatherly as the wise and just leader of the wolf pack and the headmaster. Grace Napier is a warm and fuzzy mother wolf as well as Mowgli's human mother. Nia Murrell and Connor Shiels growl ominously as the jackal cohorts of the play's villain --- played with feline gusto by Jacqui Parker: she merely narrows her eyes and shivers run down your spine.
Director James Byrne (whose overgrown jungle set is lush browns and moss greens) uses two actors for Mowgli: Marquis McGee plays the tiny boy cub, while Rishabh Iyer later scampers and scratches as if he'd been reared by wolves. Byrne employs Indonesian shadow puppetry for Mowgli's elephant confidant and for a certain Victorian Queen who sounds British enough yet looks positively Balinese.
Richard Testa's shadowy lighting made the jungle dark and mysterious. Marian Piro's animal costumes suggest a wolf by authentic ears and tail, a tiger by sharp claws...all with a touch of magic, like the snake with an Indian mirror to reflect his slithery motion
Wheelock has received many awards over the years for their long commitment to diverse casting, and this week they received another: The Rosetta LeNoire Award from Actors' Equity, which bestows only one award each year. Past recipients have been the New York Shakespeare festival and The Boys Choir of Harlem. Wheelock makes theater which reflects society. Children can see themselves in the characters on stage. Children can see the world available to the work Wheelock does. BRAVO.