Stage Door Review 2020

Jungle Book

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


written & directed by Craig Francis & Rick Miller

• Kidoons and WYRD, River Run Centre, Guelph

January 5, 2020;

 Young People’s Theatre, Toronto

February 10-March 13, 2020;

• Touring North America until April 29, 2020 – see below

“Keep peace with the lords of the jungle, the tiger, the panther, the bear”

(from “The Law for the Wolves”, The Second Jungle Book, 1895)

On January 5, families in Guelph were treated to a dazzling performance of Jungle Book by Craig Francis & Rick Miller. The Canadian production by Kidoons and WYRD has been touring North America since it premiered in Florida in 2018. Families in Toronto need not feel left out since the show will have an extended run at Young People’s Theatre February 10 to March 21. What makes the show so impressive is that it is one of the rare entertainments that find a balance between live action and projections. It is also one that makes use of many forms of puppetry from hand puppets, to rod puppets to shadow puppets. In this way the technological aspects of the show support the theatrical aspects rather than, as is too often the case, overwhelm them.

The story is based on Rudyard Kipling’s children books The Jungle Book (1894), The Second Jungle Book (1895) and the poem “If” (1910). and set in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, where Kipling himself grew up. Francis and Miller give Kipling’s stories a modern frame. They begin when Mowgli (Levin Valayil), a boy raised by wolves, is 25 years old and now coping with living in the city, the “urban jungle”. He wants to be an architect but finds that modern cities are ugly. Human beings, as reflected by their buildings, attempt to suppress nature rather than live in harmony with it. Mowgli therefore wants to create an entirely different sort of city.

Mowgli’s sister Maya (Tahirih Vejdani) has found his “Jungle Book”, a book Mowgli made of illustrations and text to record his time growing up in the jungles of India. The beautifully executed conceit of the show is that we see each of the handwritten and hand-drawn pages of Mowgli’s book (in projections) and we watch as those projections come to life and fill the stage.

The action within the frame begins when Mowgli as an infant (depicted using a rod puppet manipulated by Valayil and others) is rescued and raised by the wolf pair Akela (Matt Lacas) and Raksha (Mina James), played by actors in costume. How he came to be isolated and what happened to his human family is left as a mystery to be revealed later in the story. Mowgli’s and the wolves’ greatest enemy is the tiger Shere Khan (Vejdani again), played as a large shadow puppet, who insists that Mowgli is his and throughout the story devises various plans to entrap Mowgli. It is this continual danger from Shere Khan that gives the stories from Kipling’s episodic novel unity and it is the moral, announced right at the start about the importance of living in harmony with nature that gives the show thematic unity.

I have often criticized the use of projections, especially of animated projections as distracting in plays. Too often they make us take our eyes off the actors, and if we go to the theatre primarily to watch moving pictures we might as well be seeing a movie. This was exactly my criticism of Robert Lepage’s production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at Stratford in 2018. Writing for an empty stage, Shakespeare has built in the description of time and place into his verse so that Lepage’s over-elaborate projections were not only unnecessary but distracting.

At the same time, I have praised productions like Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon’s La Belle et la Bête seen in Toronto in 2012, were projections and live action were perfectly integrated. These kinds of shows do not use a text as rich in imagery as Shakespeare’s so that the projections have a suitable use. Even so, the best of these kinds of show always use projections as a background for human acting and not as a substitute for it.

Such is the case with Jungle Book. Co-designers Astrid Jansen and Melanie McNeill have divided the stage into three playing areas. Farthest downstage in front of three panels of scrim is dedicated to the grown-up Mowgli who serves as the story’s narrator and speaks directly to the audience. As in a panto, Valayil will sometime ask questions of the audience and expect a response, such as “Does everyone know what an architect is?”

The main playing area lies behind these three panels of scrim and in front of a solid frame which more often than not is used as a leafy surround for the back projections on the screen behind it. This intermediate area is the main space for human actors in costume and for set elements that are pushed on and off. Certain shadow puppets like that of Hathi the elephant (Mina James) only appear in this space backlit by the projections behind them.

The third acting area is behind the back scrim. Here only the most frightening shadow puppets appear – Shere Khan mounted as a headdress on an actor and Kaa the python (also Vejdani).

For the majority of the show, Francis and Miller use the projections on the back screen just as one would have used painted drops in an old-fashioned play. If the the projections on the back screen are animated, Francis and Miller have this occur a separate interludes when actors are not also on stage. The main exception to this is when Mowgli is attacked by animated monkeys in an abandoned temple. Unsurprisingly, this is also one of the least effective scenes in the play.

Otherwise, Francis and Miller keep the focus on acting and the theatrical as opposed to the technological. Thinking back on the show what one remembers most are the interactions of actors with each other or with puppets rather than any feigned interactions with projected animations.

The cast play so many different roles in so many different ways that you can hardly believe only four actors do everything. Levin Valayil, the only American in the cast, immediately establishes a rapport with the audience and makes the grown-up Mowgli friendly and engaging. As Mowgli grown beyond infancy, Valayil abandons his doll-like rod puppet and plays the young Mowgli himself, pitching his voice higher and imitating childish behaviour like pouting and tantrums that the children in the audience will find amusing. Valayil switches effortlessly between the younger and older Mowgli’s and frequently has occasion to display his attractive singing voice in lively songs written for the show by Suba Sankara.

Mina James skillfully plays a wide range of roles from the comforting mother wolf Raksha, to the black panther Bagheera, who may sound sinister but who is, in fact, a loyal supporter of the wolves and Mowgli. James’s most moving role is that of Messua, Mowgli’s human mother whom he meets by chance after having been driven out of the jungle. In Kipling’s books, Messua is Mowgli’s human foster mother, but the change by Francis and Miller making her his real mother makes their wonderfully managed recognitions scene far more emotional.

Matt Lacas plays Mowgli’s stern, supportive wolf-father Akela as well as two other comic characters. One is the acrobatic bear Baloo, who teaches Mowgli the law of the jungle and the other is Mowgli’s main human enemy Buldeo. Parents will be pleased to learn that Kipling’s view of the “law of the jungle” is quite different from the notion of “the survival of the fittest” that it means today. Instead, as Baloo repeatedly emphasizes, the law of the jungle is about maintaining balance and mutual respect. Of all animals it seems that human beings are the least capable of following this law.

On tour Tahirih Vejdani and Natalia Gracious alternate in their set of roles. I happened to see Vejdani, who will be playing her set of roles during the Toronto run. Vejdani makes a frightening Shere Khan (using an electronic voice transformer) and a powerful Kaa, who, luckily, fights on the side of Mowgli and the wolves. Vejdani also is a very sympathetic Maya and her scenes with Mowgli and especially with Messua bring welcome human emotion to the fore after the fantastic animal-centred world of Mowgli’s upbringing.

If there is a flaw with Jungle Book it is the impulse of Francis and Miller to repeat in plain terms the moral of the story we have been watching. The moral has been clear from the grown-up Mowgli’s first speech and is frequently reinforced throughout the action by Baloo. That aspect aside, however, it is difficult to imagine how the stories from Kipling’s Jungle Books could be presented in a more attractive, involving manner.

Parents should note that the show claims to be aimed at children 5 and up, but that age limit may be a bit optimistic. So many characters are introduced and so much happens so quickly that it is likely older children will appreciate the story much more than younger children. Children aged 8 to 12 are also more likely to understand the importance of the theme. The show is so incredibly inventive in its blending of all modes of theatre that adults will be no less delighted by the production than will children.

Christopher Hoile

Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Tour stops after Guelph, ON:

• Macomb Center, Clinton Township, MI

January 9, 2020;

• Symphony Space, New York, NY

January 11, 2020

• Music Hall Center, Detroit, MI

January 12, 2020

Tour stops after Toronto, ON:

• Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, CO cancelled

April 4, 2020;

• CSU Laxson Auditorium, Chico, CA cancelled

Apr 8, 2020;

• Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine, CA cancelled

Apr 24-25, 2020;

• YCPAC, Prescott, AZ cancelled

Apr 28-29, 2020

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Levin Valayil as Mowgli; Mina James as Raksha, Mina James as Raksha, Tahirih Vejdani as Shere Khan, Levin Valayil as Mowgli and Matt Lacas as Baloo; Mina James as Raksha and Levin Valayil as Mowgli; Tahirih Vejdani as Shere Khan, Mina James as Hathi, Matt Lacas as Baloo and Levin Valayil as Mowgli. © 2019 Rick Miller.

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