BWW Review: ESCAPE FROM PELIGRO ISLAND at Imagination Stage
One of the most important parts in a child's development is the power of choice. Presenting children with options engages their minds and allows them to take ownership. This is the driving idea behind Escape from Peligro Island, the latest offering from Imagination Stage. It's their first production using a choose-your-own-adventure element - every time our hero Callaway (Dallas Tolentino) is presented with a choice, the audience is asked to vote by holding up paddles - one side blue, one side red. As evidenced by their press performance this weekend, it's a fruitful device on both an artistic and marketing level - with 70 different ways the show can go, the possibilities are nearly endless.
The choices are genuinely thought-provoking - we're not talking "blue pill or red pill" (despite the voting paddles' color scheme), but options that force children to think hard about what the different outcomes will be. The first choice is whether or not Callaway should bring his inhaler or his glasses on his trip - both pretty necessary items. What changes when he has to leave one behind? How drastically is the course of the play altered? Director Kathryn Chase Bryer has led her technical crew and game cast of four on what surely was an adventurous rehearsal process, and throughout the show there's a pleasing sense that anything could happen. This is live theatre at its best.
Written by prolific Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer - whose work young audiences may have seen in DC before - Escape from Peligro Island carries the exact right tone for a choose-your-own-adventure tale for kids. It's a plucky romp with a likable hero and enough wacky sidekicks and villains to go around, with a premise that won't be hard to follow even with its many twists and turns (those both organic to the plot and borne of the show's engaging conceit). During a plane trip from one parent to another*, Callaway's plane splits in two, and he lands on a mysterious island. It's up to him and the audience to figure out exactly where he is and why he's there.
*Kudos to Kruckemeyer for his positive portrayal of a child of divorce. This is not the central plot, nor is any drama made of it - it's simply his reality, as it is for so many children.
Tolentino is immensely likable as Callaway, an engaging avatar for the audience - the stakes feel higher because we're making choices with him. He makes a nice journey from a sheltered youngster to brave adventurer with every new path. Tolentino is also the co-movement director and brings a heightened sense of danger as he pulls off a number of impressive physical feats. The simple set for Peligro Island - a few platforms and a lot of hidden compartments - makes full use of the power of the physical body to create things like dangerous spikes, underground tunnels and the like, and the way Tolentino plays off of each of these helps create a fully-realized world.
He's joined by Tia Shearer and Aaron Bliden, each playing a number of roles - we saw them as Callaway's parents, an offbeat professor, a "flight attendant" (villain alert), a dimwitted henchman - but none of these more important than second-person narrators. Shearer and Bliden speak directly to Callaway, providing him - and his young audience - with words of encouragement, helping him to weigh his options and figure out what the right path is. They're also speaking to the children watching and guiding Callaway, helping cement the show's central themes of empowerment. Throughout the play, Shearer and Bliden play their many characters with an assortment of effective costume changes, thanks to Kiana Vincenty's functional yet expressive designs.
The cast is rounded out by our narrator, Tori Tolentino, who presents the audience with the opportunity to vote throughout the show. The multi-talented Tolentino is also the co-movement captain, board operator and camera operator. The necessity for the camera operator role is questionable, as the use of projected live video is rarely anything but a distraction. It's most often used to show close-ups of Callaway's face, but as expressive as Dallas Tolentino is with his body, it doesn't add much. There is one moment, a large fight between Callaway and some goons, where action figures stand in for bodies. The cameras spins around the fight, Matrix-style, and it's a very clever and delightful use of the format. Additionally, the set by Nate Sinnott, while multifunctional, unfortunately feels a bit too industrious and anonymous in design. While this is almost certainly to serve the play's many outcomes, there isn't a lot of color or personality to be found - a misstep in a show for children packed with adventure and possibility.
It should be noted that the story described here is only one out of 70. The press release for Escape from Peligro Island suggests story directions our audience never caught whiff of - the wild west? Time travel? A talking horse? Superpowers? A vampire? On our way out, we noticed a guitar off to the side - one of many elements never once used. There's no telling where Callaway's adventures will go, and families will have a lot of fun afterwards guessing what might have been. Escape from Peligro Island is a whole load of fun, and a smart, involving show for both children and grown ups.
Escape from Peligro Island runs around one hour with a short intermission, and is best for ages 5+. It runs through May 26 at Imagination Stage at 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814. Tickets can be purchased here.