Children are the most honest audiences in the world - you can't fool them, you can't underestimate them, and they in turn let you know in no uncertain terms what they like and don't like, often without saying a word.
At a recent performance of the Vital Children's Theatre production of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Swineherd," adapted with sophisticated elan by Morna Murphy Martell, the youngsters in the audience were well-behaved and remained absorbed for the duration of the hour-long performance. But if they weren't jumping up and down from enforced boredom, they weren't jumping up and down in excitement either, which was a fairly accurate barometer for the production itself.
Andersen's classic morality tale concerns a mechanical-minded Princess who lives her life only caring about materialistic things in the world. Her selfishness toward others leads her to be disowned by her parents, abandoned by the Prince who wanted to marry her, and enslaved by a wicked witch. What she learns on her journey back home is that happiness is born out of love for others, not love for objects.
Martell's script is laced with witty double entendres and has more than its share of genuinely funny lines and situations, but some of the references are pitched a little too high over the average youngster's head. In addition, she spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the premise, and then rushes through the rest of the show, making the all-important transformation of the spoiled princess not quite believable.
Bruce Merrill's direction was likewise uneven. Overall, he kept the production well-paced, and if it never quite exploded with the infectious high spirits of some of his previous work for Vital, it was never dull - and it was frequently beguiling. Simplicity was the hallmark of the production, from Joseph Hoffman Carter's elegant sets, Scott Cronick's colorfully stylish costumes and Martin Miller's uncomplicated lighting, to the performances of the cast. Particularly delightful was Lisa Rock as both the Wicked Witch and a hilariously surly Palace Guard. Reginald Meneses was a thoroughly charming Prince/Swineherd, and Jennifer Ronald made a deliciously ditzy Lady-in-Waiting to the Princess. These three gave the production the shot in the arm it needed whenever they appeared on stage, which thankfully was frequently. Less successful were the performances of Raymond T. Book II, Patranila Jefferson, Moni Woweries, and Tamara Hampton Wright, who all seemed to be working too hard to find the lightness of touch they were aiming for. But whatever its shortcomings, Vital's The Swineherd nevertheless scored where it counted most: with its prime audience. Any production that can keep the respectful attention of an audience of 5- to 8-year-olds has to be counted a success. That, combined with Vital's own respect for their audience, continues to prove that the work that they do is, well, vital.
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita