Wind in the Willows tells the story of a driver gone completely animal.
Thursday, December 8, 2005
Ah, the heedless, self-absorbed anarchy of Mr. Toad. Bent on self-gratification at all cost, this amphibious narcissist plays like a warty metaphor for America in The Western Stage’s current pastel-drenched production of The Wind in the Willows. Consumed by the speed and thrill of his motorcars, Toad manically smashes and dumps and crashes vehicle after vehicle until his close friends Badger, Mole, and Rat must stage an intervention.
A very English play, Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale is populated by a forest full of animals dressed in gingham dresses and knickers. Various hats, tails and wigs subtly suggest mice, moles, squirrels and rabbits. Ducks waddle by in yellow baseball caps and bright orange leggings. Hedgehogs roll onto the stage wearing burnt umber Tina Turner wigs. The wicked weasels, stoats and ferrets slink on stage with crude Cockney accents and Industrial Age overalls. The fox is kind of hot in her fox hunting garb, top hat and skintight black velvet pants.
Director Ann Marie Hunter and crew have created a quaint world as sweet and sticky as treacle. But like most great English works for children, there is a dark and creepy undercurrent through Wind in the Willows. It is a place where terrible things can happen. The cruel laws of nature loom over these creatures, making them skittish and terrified. “We don’t dwell on possible futures here,” a rabbit says matter-of-factly. That’s because it’s a world where animals are attacked and dragged into the night and their fathers are made into pies.
The weasels, stoats and ferrets hunt poor blind Mole (Michael Maisonneuve) down in the Wild Wood and threaten to bite his head off before Rat (Patrick McGreal) arrives to save the day. Through terrified tears, Mole asks his friend, “Why do they do it, Ratty? Why?” To which world-wise Rat replies, “It’s just their nature.”
Similarly, it’s just Toad’s nature to be a great big bawling, squealing blunderbuss road hog. Played beautifully by John G. Bridges, Toad sashays self-importantly onto the stage dressed in bright green Victorian boots, tweed knickers, sweater vest and bow tie like some foppish mix of Curly from the Three Stooges and Divine from Pink Flamingos. Upon convincing Rat and Mole to go “caravanning” with him, a quaint term which refers to touring the countryside in a wagon, Toad proves himself to be manically self-absorbed and incapable of helping with the chores. When a motorcar runs them off the road, destroying the caravan, Toad is not a least bit upset—instead he becomes immediately fixated on the great, roaring machine.
Next we see him, he is perambulating around the countryside behind the wheel of his motorcar—causing havoc and chortling with crazed pleasure. But like any addict, Toad’s obsession quickly careens out of control. By the time Badger, Toad and Rat decided to intervene, Toad has gone through seven cars, three hospital visits, and a fortune in fines. He’s in danger of squandering his small fortune on his new pastime.
“It’s an illness, a sickness of the mind,” says Badger, as played by Peter Eberhardt.
The three friends descend on the unsuspecting Toad and perform a little exercise in hard love.
“Oh you low, bad animal,” Badger says as he descends upon Toad. “Take off those ridiculous clothes.”
“Shan’t! Shan’t! Shan’t!” Toad squeals horrifically. Alas, his friends strip him unceremoniously of his driving togs and give them away to a Jumble Sale. Poor Toad, sobbing hysterically like a child, is forced to give up motorcars cold turkey.
A week later he is a crippled junkie who refuses to even walk if he can’t drive his car. Depressed and desperate, Toad pretends he’s dying. When Rat runs for help, Toad leaps up from his wheelchair and steals the motorcar of a picnicking old couple, which he promptly drives, with orgasmic zest, into a pond and ends up in court.
In his long powdered wig, the foppish and hysterical judge played by Hal Peiken quickly cuts to the heart of the matter. Toad is a member of the middle class with a 14th century riverside estate who regularly eats five-course meals but never does the washing up. It’s a damning and accurate portrait of the juvenile Toad. Yet the judge seems willing to let him off if Toad invites him over for lunch sometime and promises to never get behind the wheel of a motorcar again.
Unrepentant, Toad refuses, crying out to the assembled wood creatures, “Petrol is in my blood!” Transformed into a mad revolutionary, he sings songs of protest. In a bid to regain order, the judge allows one of the weasels to punch the prisoner in his ample gut, yet still Toad squawks and bleats even when he is cuffed and sentenced to 20 years hard time.
It’s a deliriously fun scene that seems a tad poignant during our current oil war and sets up the second act of this wonderful play. A treat for adults and children alike, The Wind in the Willows is just the right mixture of pastels and muddy darkness.