Vital to the vocal interaction between the performers in Allison Gregory’s Red Riding Hood and the preschool and elementary aged audience members at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab is the tots’ familiarity with the classic fairy tale. Granted that they have never seen it presented in such an offbeat and playful manner, but — at the opening matinee, at least — they squealed with glee and talked back to the cast exactly as intended.
While the play has a layer of humor and theatrics aimed at adults, the target audience is clearly youngsters in this Southeastern premiere production, which comes under the Heckscher Theater for Families umbrella. The majority of the Lab’s performances are free on weekdays to school groups, with weekend performances open to the public, also free for up to four youngsters accompanied by a paid adult.
As staged with childlike wonder by producing artistic director Matt Stabile, he invites us to connect with our inner kid or simply to observe and enjoy the enjoyment of the youngsters in attendance.
After an overture of sorts by one-man-band Paul Curtis (accordion, guitar, bass and percussion sticks), Wolfgang (Troy Davidson) makes his entrance with an actorly flourish. He announces to the audience his intention to perform the familiar tale all by himself — becoming variously the wolf, Granny, woodcutter and Little Red. But he obviously did not figure on the entrance of a young, female delivery person (Dayana Morales). She is taken aback to find herself at a theater, complete with an audience staring back at her. Warming to the idea, though, she implores Wolfgang to let her in on the act. Almost forgotten until the final moments of the play is the package she brought, with its contents being one of the prime added elements to the well known tale.
Anyway, Wolfgang begrudgingly agrees to include this nameless intruder into his faux-improv narrative, although they cannot agree on certain details of the story. Does Red bring cake or soup to her ailing granny? They compromise on a basket of bread and butter instead, then Red heads off into the woods, destined to a showdown with the hungry wolf. To manage the multiple roles, the two of them switch characters at a furious pace by donning such costume fragments as a wolf mask and paws, a granny nightie and Red’s red cape and cap.
With the likelihood that this is the first exposure to live theater for much of the audience, Stabile introduces them to the transformative power of the medium. And based on observation of the young ones in my vicinity, they totally bought into the quick-change character morphs, remaining at rapt attention throughout the play’s nearly 90-minute intermissionless running time.
And run it does, really more of a sprint, as Davidson and Morales chase each other throughout Michael McClain’s atmospheric Victorian playhouse set. While these antics are in service of the narrative, the meta script never lets us forget that we are watching a pair of actors conspiratorially winking at the audience as they plant their tongues firmly in cheek.
One of the more crowd-pleasing, raucous tangents in the tale is a sequence of dueling knock-knock jokes, the more groan-worthy the pun the better. Also a highlight is the way –– in the production’s 11th hour –– that Stabile indulges his penchant for puppetry.
As much as anything, though, this Red Riding Hood is a showcase for its two performers. As the story’s narrator, Davidson has a lot of direct address to the audience, tacitly inviting and inciting the youngsters to talk back to him, which he handles with aplomb. Much of the time he is genial, but he can also display flashes of menace as required. If Davidson is dealt much of the material — after all, he expected this to be a solo effort — it is the winsome Morales, a junior in FAU’s undergraduate theater program, who steals the show. As the stagestruck Delivery Person, her initial hesitance is quickly erased and she soon throws herself into full-throttle performance mode with evident glee. Despite their natural antagonism as Red and the Wolf, Morales and Davidson play off each other nimbly.
If you feel a fairy tale needs a lesson, you could find it in the way Red conquers the wolf and accomplishes her good deed visit to her granny. But at Theatre Lab, such a message takes a back seat to the wonder of theater and a few good knock-knock jokes.
RED RIDING HOOD, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Rd., Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Through Oct. 9. $25 for adults; up to four children (under the age of 18) free of charge with an adult admission. Call 561-297-6124.