Rikki Tikki Tavi tells the story of a mongoose adopted by an English family in India after a flood separated him from his parents. Out of loyalty to his new family, Rikki Tikki Tavi (the name they give him in imitation of the sound he makes) makes it his task to protect them from poisonous snakes, of which there are several living nearby. (Mongooses' agility makes them natural snake-killers.)
The company enacted Rikki's valiant war with the snakes, which he eventually wins at great individual risk, with a sophistication that didn't condescend. In addition to Rikki, the family, and three snakes, the cast included a sometimes comical chorus of birds, who commented on the action and prayed that Rikki would, by eliminating snakes from the garden, also protect them. By combining elements of Greek drama with dance, stylized combat, and an Indian flavoring of music and costumes, the Manhattan Children's Theatre showed that it could deliver a story at a children's level while not compromising "adult" theatrical values. Diction and movement were generally well-defined, with focused groupings. If there was any caveat about the performance values, it was that sung words were less distinct than spoken ones.
The older children watched, rapt. The smaller children tended to need interpreters, but that's what parents are for. Combined with a post-show chance for the audience to meet the company, the format offers children a chance to be entertained, to learn something, and to start becoming theatregoers, a commodity the world could use more of.
The story's moral, that self-reliance, loyalty, courage, and common sense will see you through the threat of evildoers (defined as creatures opposed to the interests of your own family) is no less relevant for being old-fashioned. Every Dick Francis novel has the same moral, but that fact doesn't stop the books from being page-turners. Kipling, in giving the birds Indian names, suggests that the natives are the white man's burden, but that is not a moral emphasized in the MCT production.
The sets were spare -- two platforms with painted backdrops defined house and garden. Costumes had an Indian flavor, with masks for the humans and sequined headgear for the cobras. Lighting comprised a few fresnels mounted on the backs of the stadium-style seats. All simple but effective.
It is to be hoped that Manhattan Children's Theatre has started a tradition of outstanding-caliber work. They showed they can produce work of excellence and complexity without a huge budget and without talking down to their audience.
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton