4 Stars – Excellent, highly enjoyable

I remember when I was a kid how hard it was to get my dad to watch Disney movies.  He was too old, he’d say.  He’d be bored out of his mind.  This is why I hate labels; if you call something a “children’s film,” you’re automatically going to assume the film is, well, exclusively for children.  In A Deep Dark Wood, the latest production from Gobbledygook and Moko Dance at The Lakeside Arts Theatre, suffers from this same labeling misfortune.  Children’s theatre.  I can already see the eye rolls. 

Honestly Dad, it’s your loss.

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A wondrous hybrid of theatre and dance, In A Deep Dark Wood tells the (admittedly bare-bones) story of a young girl who ventures too far into (where else?) a mysterious enchanted forest.  Lost and alone, she encounters a plethora of mystical beings straight out of classic fairy tales, ultimately discovering the strength to face her fears and find her way home.  Going home: the greatest narrative hook since Homer.   A 6 year-old will understand it just as much as any 96 year-old, and for a production aimed at children it couldn’t be more perfect.

Bar none, this production uses projections in more innovative ways than I’ve ever seen on a stage.  In one scene, the little girl (emotively played and choreographed by Olivia Quayle) frolics with her shadow on screen, then chases it as it runs the opposite direction.  In another she sways to the production’s ethereal soundtrack as shapes behind her form gradually into a forest, her movements precisely timed to create the illusion of her dance actively painting the scene.  Silhouettes of human arms and legs form the story’s monsters, granting them a dreamlike fluidity.   My favorite moment involves the girl holding her miniaturized shadow as it dances wistfully on her palm–a “tiny dancer,” if you will.  From a technical standpoint, it’s a marvel.

This production uses projections in more innovative ways than I’ve ever seen on a stage.

Occasionally the production’s creative ambitions get the better of it, however, burying the already simple story under a thick blanket of abstract expressionism.  At about the 31 minute mark my mind wandered from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.  That’s a bad sign.  Thankfully the show seems aware of this and tempers its running time to a merciful 40 minutes.

Also, the show’s advertised “interactivity” is unfortunately all sound and fury.  A fantastic idea on paper, the technical team created special “magic cushions,” inviting children to swish their hands over them at certain points to alter the images on screen.  It’s an awesome moment, mesmerizing even.  But after a minute the cushions darken, never to be used again and coming off as nothing more than a gimmick.  The production alone was captivating enough; it didn’t need to trick children into paying attention by dangling shiny things.

Discovery, wonder, helplessness, confidence–children understand these themes far better than we probably realize.

In fact, I would consider that In A Deep Dark Wood’s greatest achievement.  Sitting at the rear of the theatre, I saw an audience almost exclusively made up of kids under 10 staying perfectly quiet and still.  How many times in my life will I see something like that?   Discovery, wonder, helplessness, confidence–children understand these themes far better than we probably realize.  But here’s the dirty little secret: adults understand them too.  They understand them, and they remember when they were children themselves understanding them for the first time.

Dad, give it a try sometime.  You might like it.

 

Logan Wamsley

 

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