The Holy Grail of family theater is a play that speaks to both youngsters and adults.
That is apparently also the quest of The Heckscher Foundation for Children, which is funding an annual production at FAU Theatre Lab. The program kicks off with the U.S. premiere of Allison Gregory’s whimsical Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, based on the kid lit book by Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking).
In addition to being the initial show under the Heckscher Theatre for Families banner, this is the first production by the company’s new artistic director, Matt Stabile. And while the play itself is weighted too heavily towards tots, his tongue-in-cheek staging has sufficient sophistication to keep grownups engaged.
Ronia, born one night in the midst of a thunderstorm, grows into an independent, assertive, and often downright stubborn child. In short, a spiritual cousin of Pippi’s. Although she has a fierce love for her parents, she is taken aback when she learns that her family’s possessions are the result of her father Matt and his accomplices’ vocation of stealing stuff from others. Hey, it’s a living.
That night when Ronia came into the world, so did Birk Borkason, but a lightning bolt created a chasm on their mountain home, causing a rift between their two clans. Think Hatfields and McCoys, or perhaps Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, for Ronia and Birk soon think of themselves as brother and sister – perhaps in an Ozarks incestuous way, a possible adult theme that never becomes overt – who bridge the two feuding families.
An even more on-target analogy would be the Hucklebees and the Bellomys of The Fantasticks, for Ronia and Birk will have to leave home and go out into the world – a vivid storybook forest designed by Michael McClain – in search of wisdom before they can return and reunite the clans.
Like any worthy storybook woods, danger lurks within them. Here they are in the form of assorted harpies, dwarves and gnomes, often represented by puppets – a signature touch of Stabile’s – designed presumably by resident props master John Shamburger and costumer Dawn Shamburger. Even better are a couple of perky marionette foxes, guaranteed to delight theatergoers of all ages.
Like any fable worth its salt, Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter comes with a set of morals. Any youngster who was considering robbery as a career will learn that it is not a wise choice. And perhaps more valuable is the theme of the importance of family and friendships. At Theatre Lab, the main message being imparted is the wonder of live theater, delivered in a package of colorful lights by Thomas M. Shorrock, rustic, mirthful costumes and an original music score composed by Angelina Lopez Catledge and Paul Curtis, and performed by him on a handful of instruments and noisemakers.
Catledge doubles as Ronia’s mom, Lovis, who begins the play with a clarion song on that eventful stormy night of her daughter’s birth. Leah Sessa (Ronia) also gets a few opportunities to demonstrate her vocal power, though a little less facial mugging would have been appreciated.
Roderick Randle (a Theatre Lab veteran of Gregory’s Motherland) makes another positive impression as precocious Birk and the bear-like Timothy Mark Davis is a standout as Ronia’s dad, Matt, who goes through parental heartache when rejected by his daughter. Filling out the cast are Niki Fridh and Zack Myers who create and keep transforming themselves as a handful of broadly comic characters.
Still, whimsy can only captivate us for so long. At a little over two hours, this show would be improved with substantial editing. It runs a bit long for the lower end of the target audience – 9 and up, according to the theater – but looking around the intimate Parliament Hall playhouse, it was the adults who were fidgeting while their young charges remained rapt at attention.
RONIA, THE ROBBER’S DAUGHTER, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Sept. 30. $15, Children free with an adult admission. 561-297-6124.