BWW Reviews: THE NIGHT FAIRY Learns the Law of the Jungle at Imagination Stage
At first glance, Imagination Stage's first show of the season, THE NIGHT FAIRY, adapted by John Glore and based on the book by Laura Amy Schlitz, is the story of an injured Night Fairy who must learn to manage the many personalities she meets in a daytime garden. Using her creativity, she ultimately finds a new home and new friends in a once unfamiliar environment. However, although Flory the Night Fairy does manage to survive in her new ecosystem, the means by which she thrives often seem overly harsh and not all that noble.
We first meet our professed heroine Flory (Tia Shearer) as she glides through the cool, breezy night air on her enormous blue wings. No sooner can we admire her wings, than she is beset upon by a fearsome bat! We watch their struggle play out in projections upon crisscrossed white fabric panels stretched across the stage, until the doomed Flory collapses in a heap and the stage goes dark. When the scene resumes, Flory finds that her glorious wings have been reduced to blackened nubs. She is flightless--grounded.
Unsafe in the dark of night, Flory resolves to make her way in the daytime, trying to stay alive in the garden with a no-holds-barred approach to survival. Flory first encounters a trilling Wren (Megan Graves) who is leaving for the winter. With no hesitation, Flory moves in to the newly empty house, ignoring the bird's firm instructions to stay away. Finders keepers. Next, she happens upon a perpetually ravenous squirrel (Erin Weaver) who tries again and again to eat the helpless Flory, until she is able to dissuade the creature with repeated stinging spells. Flory then uses food to bribe the newly-named Skuggle the squirrel into carrying her around the garden, effectively securing a reliable means of transportation.
As the play continues, Flory, who is seemingly supposed to be a positive role model, uses more not-so-on-the-level means of coercion to make the other creatures in the garden bend to her will. She threatens to leave Hummingbird (Megan Graves) caught in Spider's web (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) to starve unless the bird agrees to fly her around on its back. Then later, when she's had a change of heart towards Hummingbird, encourages Spider to eat a wasp also caught in the web instead of the bird. While these types of survival means no doubt permeate the wild environment of backyard gardens, they do seem somewhat curious and harsh themes to highlight for children.
As the play begins to wrap up, however, Flory begins to soften a bit. She cares for Hummingbird's eggs with a warming spell even though Hummingbird refuses to fly with her; she apologizes for the first time in her little Fairy life, saying sorry to Spider for ruining her web; and she befriends her archenemy and forgives his mistaken attack on her wings. However, it's difficult for the audience to quite believe that Flory has learned any lesson at all from her ordeal. In the play's final moments, Skuggle asks Flory if they are friends and Flory assures her that they are. Nevertheless, it can be argued that truly, the Night Fairy hasn't made any friends at all in the garden-she has made only self-serving survivalist business partnerships.
The oftentimes confused morality of THE NIGHT FAIRY however, is masked by a stellar creative team. Director Jeremy Skidmore has created a beautiful blend of unique characters within a visually stunning world. The cast is quite strong as well, led by the memorable Erin Weaver as Skuggle the manic squirrel. With impeccable physicality and understanding of character, Weaver embraces the duality of wildness and softness in Skuggle. At once engaging in voracious hunger-fueled panting and anxiety-stricken tail-stroking, the squirrel soon becomes the most beloved character onstage.
Tia Shearer has some truly lovely moments as Flory, especially when she sings a gentle, almost-Celtic lullaby to Hummingbird's eggs. However, the story tends to get a bit lost in the silent moments when the narrative must be told only through Shearer's expressions. Other solid performances by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as beautifully balletic Spider and sinister Racoon, and Megan Graves, doing double-duty as tittering Wren and long-suffering Hummingbird. Ryan Sellers as Peregrine the bat is splendidly dressed by Costume Designer Erin Nugent in an all-leather floor-length coat, complete with faux leather wings that fully expand as he jumps and whirls. Sellers's Matrix-esque fighting spins and young shyness when interacting with Flory create a truly compelling mammalian character.
The storytelling is further propelled by Patrick Watkinson's inventive set design. Flory's tale unfolds on a stepped deck with a turntable at its center--used to mark the passing of time and the changing of place (which happens all too frequently unfortunately). One of the most ingenious uses of the turntable is during a split scene: while Flory patiently weaves a blanket from grass, Skuggle searches in vain for food--stalking the unaware Flory, chasing an acorn that is perpetually out of her reach, and dejectedly bemoaning her empty stomach.
Projections Designer Jared Mezzocchi's somewhat trippy, stop-motion projections are used to display tricky plot points like the bat's initial attack on Flory; expertly projected on thin strips of cloth, as both creatures zoom down one leg and then another. Mezzocchi also succeeds in highlighting the miniature size of Flory's world by designing an enormous shadow Giant--the human who owns the garden. The blurry shadow, coupled with Sound Designer Christopher Baine's effect of booming footsteps, creates a predominantly unseen but entirely believable character.
Although the visual impact of Imagination Stage's THE NIGHT FAIRY is undeniable, the questionable moral themes seem to set the show askew. As Skuggle asserts during an early argument with Flory, "Law of the jungle, my friend!" - and a truer sentiment is hard to find about this show. When misfortune places her in an unfamiliar place and time, instead of forming new friendships, Flory sinks to the baser means of survival. THE NIGHT FAIRY is not the gentlest of stories, it doesn't have the most infallible of heroines, and it is not populated with the most caring of creatures. Instead, with gorgeous design and impressive performances, THE NIGHT FAIRY embraces the harshness and reality of the law of the jungle.
Photo Credit: Imagination Stage website
THE NIGHT FAIRY: Based on the book by Laura Amy Schlitz, Adapted by John Glore, Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Associate Director: Nancy Bannon, Stage Manager: Roy A. Gross, Scenic Designer: Patrick Watkinson, Lighting Designer: Martha Mountain, Sound Designer: Christopher Baine, Costume Designer: Erin Nugent, Projections Designer: Jared Mezzocchi, Props Designer: Andrea Moore. THE NIGHT FAIRY is best for ages 4-10, runs September 24 through October 26 in Imagination Stage's Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased online at www.imaginationstage.org, at the Imagination Stage box office, or via phone at 301-280-1660. Group rates are available.