There’s a fine line in children’s entertainment between effective and annoying. Things like Elmo, the devil’s spawn with those creepily docile tones, and Baby Einstein DVDs, with their maddeningly catchy educational tunes that get stuck in your head like peanut butter in your hair, may have some value for the little ones, but not without some pretty damning consequences for adults. The key is to find something that educates without irritating, and based on what I’ve found as a relatively new father, it needs to include the following: clownish antics, bright colors, goofy accents, tickling, ridiculous dress-up outfits and, if possible, peek-a-boo.
Still Life with Iris, this year’s debut production from UM’s Department of Drama/ Dance, uses all those methods to grab a child’s attention. Steven Dietz’s fantastical adventure is a simple story of a little girl searching for one simple thing: home. And with that setup, Dietz’s script keeps the adolescent appeal simple, as well: kaleidoscopic sets and outlandish characters with absurd habits in a story that moves swiftly enough to hold the gaze of a wee one.
Understand, I’m basing this assessment less on my own observations than on those of the elementary school kid sitting behind me who signaled his satisfaction, or occasional lack thereof, by repeatedly kicking the back of my chair. At Monday night’s open house dress rehearsal, the Montana Theatre was packed with three rows of drama students and an entire house of what looked like fifth graders and their guardians. The kids loved it. The parents seemed thankful it ended by bedtime, 9 p.m., in just under two hours.
Those without a cling-on attached to their knee during the two acts, however, were left without much to chew on. This isn’t the sort of fantastical adventure that a college student can trip out on, or an adult couple can sneak into for a friendly nudge toward simpler virtues. It falls well below its closest model, Alice in Wonderland, for psychedelics and intellect, yet a few notches above some community theater version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in message and grandeur. It’s a play for 8 year olds and their discerning parents, which is fine, but probably not much broader a crowd than that.
Still Life with Iris is based on Caretakers of Wonder, a 1980 children’s book written and illustrated by Cooper Eden. Dietz’s stage adaption takes the audience to the land of Nocturno, a place where all the things we see during the day are made. Everyone in Nocturno has a chore, from painting flowers and building thunderstorms to counting leaves and lifting up the fog. Everyone in Nocturno also has their own coat, which is the key to maintaining one’s memories; lose the coat, lose any sense of mom, dad, home and the like. Nocturno is run by the Goods, imperialists who live on Great Good Island and collect the absolute best of everything.
Iris (Tashia Gates) is this story’s Alice, and early on she’s confronted by a strange man in black who wants to disrobe her—clearly, there’s a lesson in here for the type of dude kids should avoid. Mr. Matternot (Jack Zagunis)—to whom I referred as R. Kelly in all my notes—works for the Goods, who want a little girl to add to their collection. They acquire Iris, but she’s able to salvage a single button from her disappeared coat and the one memory that button allows her—an image of her kitchen table at home—sparks her desire to discover where she’s come from. Well, there’s that and the fact that the Goods are some seriously wacky freaks with crappy toys and too many rules. Iris’ escape back to Nocturno joins her with Annabel Lee (Martha Neslen), a pirate, and Mozart (yes, that Mozart, played by Patrick Cook), and together they work like Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow to get her back home. I won’t reveal the ending because you never know how a children’s play is going to turn out.
Teresa Waldorf’s direction, Alessia Carpoca’s set design and Amber Rose Mason’s costumes all play up the whimsical elements of Nocturno and Great Good Island. Everything’s bright, loud and overblown, and the accompanying performances mostly follow suit. By far the show’s high points, regardless of age, come courtesy of Grotto and Gretta Good, played by Timmy L’Heureux and Kelly Long Olson. Their skittishly uptight characters, so unaccustomed to company and especially children, are similar to Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the Terry Gilliam flick that was a draw to both adults and children); L’Heaurex does this absurd thing, keeping his right hand constantly raised in some sort of effeminate royal pose that gets more and more hilarious as his character’s stature dissipates.
If only more of Dietz’s play and Waldorf’s production had the intrigue and interplay of the Goods it could have been more than a simple matinee special for the tater-tot crowd. It hopes to be a classic, but the plentiful allegories and lessons of perfectionism are at such a cheerily basic level that there’s little for grown-ups to glean from it. Instead, it’s merely nice, maybe even neat, and to be honest I’m stealing that last word from the kid who sat behind me.
Still Life with Iris continues at UM’s Montana Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 8. Tuesday through Saturday shows at 7 PM, with 2 PM matinees on Saturday and Sunday. $15/$12 students/$5 under 12.