Literally Alive Children's Theatre, based in the Players Theatre in the West Village, has been making a name for itself as a producer of low-tech, high-concept theatre for families with young children. Literally Alive's recent adaptation of The Little Mermaid garnered criticism that compared it positively to Disney's multimillion dollar stage version. Now, for their contribution to the First Irish 2008 festival of Irish theatre, Literally Alive's Michael Sgouros and Brenda Bell have unveiled an original adaptation of Irish writer Oscar Wilde's children's story "The Selfish Giant." The result is visually delightful, with spirited acting and some of the most creative audience-participation and attention-getting techniques I have seen in children's theatre. It also transparently reveals the challenge of adapting this Victorian Christian evangelical morality tale for a multi- or non-denominational modern audience.
An hour before each performance of The Selfish Giant, Literally Alive holds a free pre-show workshop, in which show puppet designer Julia Darden helps children to make shadow-puppets out of construction and crepe paper, up on the Players' stage. The puppets, shaped like flowers and snowflakes, are then used in that day's show.
The audience participation continues in the play's prologue, in which Todd Eric Hawkins, who will play the Selfish Giant, asks the children in the audience to guess "what you need to put on a play" ("Acting!" "Costumes!" "Lights!") and then introduces them to the company members who provide these elements. Hawkins identifies each of the actors and names their roles. This will be helpful later, when human performers represent birds, seasons, sleet and snow.
Then the story begins. The Selfish Giant does not want anyone else to play in his garden; even he doesn't play in it himself. He has made his rule clear, on a sign that reads "TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED." When the Giant goes off to visit his cousin in Cornwall, whom he doesn't much like, his beleaguered servant, Patrick (energetically played by Sal Delmonte), throws open the gates of the garden to the children of the neighboring village, which is as poor as the Giant is rich. (In the original story, Wilde explains that these children have nothing to play with except stones and dirt from their unpaved roads.)
When the Giant returns, he is furious, and replaces the cautionary sign with a stone wall. That keeps the kids out for good, but also drives away the birds, the flowers, and even Spring, causing it to be perpetual winter in Narnia. Or whatever country this is.
The triumph of Winter is one of the most captivating moments in the play. The season is represented by a dancer (Stefanie Smith) in a fluffy, floor-length white tiered skirt and a huge white hooded cloak that blows about her as she dances with partner in an ice-colored suit. He lifts her and spins and she flies, scattering snow and freezing air. The Giant is dismayed by Winter, but for the audience, she is a wonderful sight. The accompanying music, composed by Sgouros and performed by Sgouros, Laura Jordan, and Kristin Smith, has a lovely marimba part reminiscent of falling snow.
Then the story experiences some growing pains. Children sneak into the garden, and the Giant suddenly learns to like them -- especially one whom, he suspects, is an apparition of himself as a child. Why this change? He has learned that a garden kept selfishly apart from the world cannot bloom, and happily announces a goal to rediscover his inner child.
This is a bit odd for a play directed at the 3-10 set, who presumably have not yet lost their inner children because they are allowed to be children in the outer sense. However, in Wilde's story, the little boy who gives the Giant his attitude adjustment mysteriously has nail marks in his hands and feet. In Literally Alive's modernization, we will reach salvation by psychology and letting go of our grown-up seriousness, selfishness, and repression, an updated moral that's at least as silly as the original one.
To be fair, much Victorian-era European writing for children presents a fairly serious challenge to the modern adaptor. Most of it was intended to teach a few doctrinaire principles: that salvation after death is worth making sacrifices in life, that the rich should share their wealth with the poor through charity rather than through political reform or revolution, and that the prime example of both these principles may be found in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
From Hans Christian Andersen's original "Little Mermaid," who died for unrequited love but gained an immortal soul, to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Little Eva and Frances Hodgson Burnett's pantheon of rich, spoiled children who must learn humility and charity before regaining security, this is the formula. A few brilliant writers -- Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie -- broke the rules, compelling children in their stories and audiences to confront the complexities and absurdities of the real world. Oscar Wilde, in writing "The Selfish Giant," was no such rebel.
Despite this, "The Selfish Giant" has some redeeming qualities. Literally Alive deserves kudos for translating them for a new generation of theatregoers.