For one production a season, Drexel University’s Mandell Professionals in Residence Program provides resources and actors to a professional local company, proving beneficial to both parties. For audiences, the arrangement gives an opportunity to see what a smaller company can do with a large cast and university infrastructure. This year’s offering, an adaptation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down under the auspices of Simpatico Theatre Project, demonstrates the talent of company director Allen Radway in coordinating an intricate but unpretentious array of parts into a coherent and appealing whole.
Richard Adams’s 1972 novel is justly described as a classic of children’s literature. Following a band of anthropomorphized rabbits, it situates heroic stories in the vein of Homer or Virgil in the intimate natural scale of the English countryside. The characters are sympathetic, their struggles compelling, the details of their lives drawn with the tender faithfulness of E.O. Wilson’s ants, their worldview imbued with a mythology and magic that powers them through the precarious position as creatures with “a thousand enemies.”
An animated 1978 film captured much of this magic and danger while retaining the general plotline. Simpatico’s version, based on an adaptation by Chicago playwright John Hildreth, is a more lighthearted and playful take and misses some of the intimacy, fear, and wonder as it jumps from scene to scene. Audiences familiar with the text can fill in these gaps themselves, newcomers to the work will find other carrots to bite into. These include beautiful illustrations by Robert Berry and Patrick Gabrielli and shadow puppets by Aaron Cromie and Lorna Howley, both of which owe some debt to the cinematic animations, and communicative movement choreography by Colleen Hughes which only occasionally runs to awkwardness.
The engaging plot remains mostly intact: When diminutive Fiver (Cortnée Nicole Love) gets premonitions of the destruction of the warren (vague in the novel, specifically prescient in the Simpatico adaptation), she (he in the original) and her brother Hazel (Alex McCormick) fail to convince their chief rabbit (David Blatt) to relocate. Instead they lead a group of rabbits (17 in the novel, half a dozen onstage) through a series of trials to reach the promised land of Watership Down.
The novel was rightly criticized for its cursory and unenlightened treatment of women. Simpatico’s adaptation gets around this by making several characters female: in addition to Fiver, the brains of the group Dandelion (Joy Weir), the mythological trickster Rabscuttle (also played by Love), the sun-god Frith (puppeteer Lorna Howley), and an add-on from another warren Strawberry (Marly Logue). This rectifies a gender imbalance, but twists a key plot point: the rabbits get to their paradise on a hill only to realize they have no does; more adventures ensue. In the Simpatico version there would seem to be a natural solution for famously prodigious bunnies to relieve the need for “more rabbits”.
With an intricate story across dozens of scenes, separate mythological tales told in live action and puppetry, 16 actors, and live original music (coordinated by Brendan McHale), director Allen Radway has his work cut out to create a coherent theatrical experience. Radway’s success is a testament to the quality of his Drexel collaborators; in several cases it was difficult to know who was a student and who was a professional actor (though of course this makes two statements).
Among the professionals a couple actors stood out. The novel was written during the height of the cold war and its great villain, General Woundwort, is a megalomaniacal dictator with a fearsomeness well captured in this production by David Blatt. (Costume designer Jill Keys dresses Woundwort’s vassals in fitting Sovietic drabness.)
But it is Edward Snyder, returning to the stage after a nine-year absence (with just one brief praiseworthy revisit), who most impresses. First in a cultish interpretation of Cowslip, a strange member of a melancholy artistic warren which the wandering rabbits encounter. Then as Kehaar, an injured seabird that the rabbits nurse back to health in return for aerial reconnaissance. Stereotypically West Indian in the book and film (like a better realized but still problematic Jar Jar Binks), Kehaar echoes a World War I German flying ace in Hildreth’s version (so he longs for “Big Vater” not “Peeg Vater”)1, a caricature which Snyder plays with a suitably controlled silliness.
Among the students Laura Allan captures the dissident liberalism of Hyzenthlay, a rabbit of Woundwort’s warren; Mari Ma plays well with Blatt as his head of police Captain Campion; Jacob Merinar guides us through the rabbit mythology as storytelling rabbit Dandelion. and Sophie Hirsh is delightful as wide-eyed cage rabbit Clover.
As this surfeit of characters implies, WATERSHIP DOWN might prove densely plotted to the uninitiated. (I haven’t even mentioned my favorite rabbit, Bigwig, bumbling and less grouchy but no less likeable in Sam Sherburne’s interpretation.) And although I heard complaints from a viewer less familiar with Adams’s work that the adaptation was difficult to follow, other audience members, including two young children I spoke to, were thoroughly captivated. In print, in film, and now in a loving stage version, this is one for the younger-hearted among us.
[Mandell Theater, Drexel Univesity campus, 33rd and Chestnut streets] November 4-22, 2015; simpaticotheatre.org.
1 This change makes sense for a staged version seeking to establish a human actor as a flying creature, but if the national stereotype was changed for political sensitivity, it raises the question of why we find it okay to stereotype some cultures and not others. Does fear of being racist sometimes reveal racism, like when we feel the need to change the transliteration of Bombay to Mumbai but remain comfortable writing Köln as Cologne?