BWW Reviews: Imagination Stage Delights with its Production of THE BFG, Adapted by David Wood from Roald Dahl's Children's Novel
Imagination Stage, in Bethesda, Maryland, has scored yet another home run with its production of THE BFG, adapted by David Wood, OBE, from Roald Dahl's children's novel, and directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer and Eric J. Van Wyck.
Parents will find themselves laughing along with their kids at Dahl's and Wood's irreverent humor, including an extended riff on the biologically impolite results of reversing the direction of the bubbles in soda pop. The more mature members of the audience will chuckle at the modern cultural references (such as the Geico piggy's "Whee, Whee-whee-wheeee," and the Queen of England's performing her signature wave in her sleep).
BFG (James Konicek) redundantly stands for "Big Friendly Giant." However, he is not big compared to the other giants. Perhaps he didn't grow as much because his diet is limited to the foul-tasting vegetable called a snozzcumber. The other giants in Giant Country, led by the especially evil Fleshlumpeater (Matthew Schleigh), grow bigger on their diet, which consists mostly of human beings. BFG befriends Sophie (Megan Graves), an orphaned British girl, during the middle-of-the night witching hour when the other giants are prowling for food and BFG is spreading dreams. He invites Sophie to his home to rescue her from the evil giants likely to snatch a child who is staring out the window in the middle of the night. He introduces her to snozzcumbers and the far more palatable frobscottle drink, and teaches her his job of catching dreams and releasing them to sleeping people. When they hear that the evil giants are planning a raid in England, BFG and Sophie devise a way to warn the Queen (Susan Lynskey, looking uncannily like a young Elizabeth) and, of course, to help her Majesty save the UK.
As is usual in Imagination Stage's productions, the music and the visuals are as important as the plot and acting. The giants are huge puppets (designed by co-director Eric J. Van Wyck), whose lines are spoken by actors from inside the bodies, and who operate them with help from puppeteers. The actors also appear in human-sized suits that match the puppets' appearance in scenes where the giants need to move easily. In one such scene, the giants attack dollhouse-sized buildings, from which they snatch and eat humans represented by tiny drawings attached to tongue depressors. BFG, when he appears without the puppet, holds a thumb-sized doll in his hand - Sophie. The fact that the giants are crunching on wooden sticks that bear minimal resemblance to people helps keep what could have been an appalling scene light; the youngest members of the audience are unlikely to catch on that the giants are eating sleeping families.
The scenery consists in part of elaborate projections that roll panoramically to signify BFG's and the other giants movement across the land. When BFG walks as a puppet, two puppeteers carry Sophie to simulate flying. Coordinating the projections with the puppets' movement and the dialogue is a monumental logistical achievement.
Although they will have ample opportunities to laugh, Americans may miss some of the British cultural references. For example, until my neighbor explained the wave, I couldn't understand why the queen was wiggling her hand in her sleep. Also, one of the cruder bits of humor might have been cruder still - and unacceptable to British audiences - had Dahl been American. Without giving too much away, BFG answers the Queen's request for musical entertainment in a way that appalls Sophie, and which results in the Queen's responding dryly that she'd prefer Scottish bagpipies. I suspect that an American author with Dahl's sense of humor would have had the Queen participate in BFG's performance.
The story, while it keeps the audience's attention, pales next to the visual artistry and the engineering of the puppets. The BFG puppet is made primarily of aluminum and rattan connected to a framed hiking backpack worn by the actor. The frame has hips with bolted joints that allow the puppet's arms and legs to move. The head has a movable jaw and contains the beginning of the spine, which extends into a socket in the backpack, allowing the actor to move the head and make the puppet talk while the actor is talking.
Whether you go to THE BFG to celebrate Independence Day by watching two British military characters look foolish (Matthew McGee and Alex Vernon), to give your kids a chance to enjoy bodily function humor, or to study the amazing engineering of the puppets, you must attend this Imagination Stage production.
The rest of the cast includes Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Emily Kester, Jon Hudson Odom, Austin Sargent, and Angi Smolik. The rest of the creative team includes Jason Arnold (lighting design), Christopher Baine (composer and sound design), Madison Bahr (stage manager), Ben Cunis (movement consultant), Shana Ferguson (assistant stage manager), Niles Ludwig (projection animation design), and Jeffrey Stolz (costume design).
THE BFG will run through August 10th at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland 20814, Box Office: 301-280-1660; www.ImaginationStage.org . Regular performances are on weekends, with field trip performances on weekdays. There will be a Friday night performance on July 18, at 7:00 p.m. There will be an ASL interpreted performance on July 13th, at 4:00 p.m., and a sensory-friendly performance on July 27th, at 11:00 a.m. There are a limited number of $10 tickets available for each performance, courtesy of the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation, by calling the box office. The reduced price tickets go on sale for the following week's performances on Monday mornings at 10:00 a.m. A performance preview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9horTBN4-BE . Although the show is recommended for ages 5 to 10, age 5 may be too young because of the discussion about eating children. Also, children older than age 10 may well enjoy the show; my teenaged granddaughter found it enchanting.
Photo Credit: Margot Schulman