'Willows' draws out kids' enthusiasm


POSTED: Friday, February 13, 2009

Audience participation can be problematic if a show relies on it to the point where things go flat if those in the seats sit on their hands. Fortunately, that was not a problem when Paliku Theatre's daring and ambitious production of “;The Wind in the Willows”; opened on Saturday.




”;The Wind in the Willows”;

At 2 and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and 2 p.m. Sunday at Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College, 45-720 Keaahala Road. Tickets are $12, $9 children and students. Call 235-7310 or visit www.eTicketHawaii.com.




The fact is, even with Ron Bright directing, the show is a gamble. Kenneth Grahame's fanciful story about the experiences of four animals on the bank of the River Thames in Edwardian England is not as well known these days as it was 50 or 75 years ago. A greater challenge is in holding the attention of its young audience for the long periods in which very little happens at a very slow place.

Playwright Michael Hulett's musical adaptation focuses first on the friendship of a mole (Kim Anderson) and a water rat (Miko Franconi McDonnell), and then on their experiences in dealing with their wealthy and self-centered neighbor, Mr. Toad (Sky Okimoto) of Toad Hall. Rat is level-headed and sufficiently traveled to warn the innocent and emotional mole about the dangers of the Wild Wood, full of animals that might eat rats or moles, and the Wide World, inhabited by humans.

Toad is impulsive, bombastic and suffers what in modern terms would be described as a short attention span: quick to embrace something that catches his fancy and just as quick to chuck it when something newer catches his eye. Toad is thrilled at the prospect of riding in a buggy but quickly loses interest when he sees a “;motor car.”;

His curiosity results in auto theft charges after he accidentally sets an unattended car in motion, goes on a joy ride and wrecks it. Toad's wild ride takes place off stage but sets up audience participation scenes that drew the crowd back into the action.

On trial before Judge Whackbottom (Amy Oshiro), Toad is belligerent and combative, challenging the authority of a human court to try an animal and mouthing off at every opportunity. The judge overrules Toad's objections, gives him more prison time for his courtroom behavior than for stealing the car and then asks the audience to rule on the case. The kids all yelled for acquittal - and were promptly overruled. But the surge of energy from that episode sustained itself for a while afterward.

Audience involvement also kick-started the action when, after several more misadventures, Toad is captured by a human poacher (Garett Taketa), and young voices enthusiastically boosted his cries for help.

Pacing aside, the show would be more engaging if the four main characters looked more like animals.

Anderson has a prosthetic nose and three-toed feet, and Okimoto's face is green, but beyond that there is little to distinguish the animals from the humans. A bit of costuming imagination - lightweight stylized half-heads, a short tail for the badger and a longer one for the rat, for example - would have made this admirable production more appealing to both children and adults alike.