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Thursday, October 13, 2005
More often than not, “good children’s theater” is an oxymoron. Combining dodge-ball choreography with spelling-bee delivery, children’s theater is usually a spectacle that can only be truly appreciated by parents.
Gail Higginbotham and Ariel Theatrical are a tremendously refreshing exception to the rule. In its current production, a lush musical called Redwall, Ariel has created an eminently enjoyable children’s theater experience. Maybe more importantly, it’s creating a new generation of well-trained actors.
Housed in the beautiful Wilson Children’s Theatre in Oldtown Salinas, Ariel is a portrait in professionalism. When I led my son Jackson in off the street, I was immediately struck by the lavish costumes displayed in Ariel’s lobby. This was definitely not some felt and sequin operation; these were costumes fit for equity theater.
Jackson was unsure about the short walk down the tight hallway into the theater, but felt better when we emerged into the high-ceilinged, 300-person capacity house. I was amazed by the place. In terms of space and feel, it ranks among the best theaters in the county. We took a seat near the back and waited for the lights to dim.
Redwall is based on the highly popular series of British books by Brian Jacques. It tells the story of a community of mice and other forest creatures like badgers and moles defending their monastery against a band of murderous rats. At the center of the tale is young Matthias, a mouse who must fulfill a prophecy to save the monastery and the legend of Martin the Warrior—Redwall’s legendary hero.
Needless to say, this is not a simple pageant. As Higginbotham, who also directed the production, mentions in her introduction, the young actors are learning how to act from within their elaborate costumes. Ariel is first and foremost an academy of theater and Higginbotham chose Redwall to teach her young charges the craft.
The highly physical performances of the 43 (count them, 43) young actors are exceptional, and the high-traffic blocking is miraculously clean. Higginbotham uses the whole theater to move her huge cast around and the result is engaging.
Perhaps a little too engaging for a not-quite-3-year-old. Every time the band of rat mercenaries led by Cluny the Scourge (played with Crimean zest by Chuck Hackett) marched through the aisles singing their war chants with a ferret skull floating on a pike above their heads, my son wanted to climb into my lap. But when the action returned to the stage and the peace-loving, Gregorian-chant-singing residents of the monastery, Jackson wanted to stand on his own chair to get a better view.
The young actors manage to convey a great deal through their sophisticated masks. The highlights are far too many to completely list, but Jor-el Vaas-borg drives the action with his high energy performance as Matthias, the young mouse upon whom the monastery must rely. Kate Browning does a wonderful turn as the matron-warrior Constance Badger. And in the role of the colorful Basil Stage Hare, J.D. Morris is just plain cool.
Yet even the smallest parts amaze. For example, as the captured sparrow Warbeak, little Kayley Wilson conveys fiery insolence, insurrection, desire, terror and finally a begrudged compliance with her voice and body postures in the short space of two minutes.
This high level of performance is directly attributable to Higginbotham, who founded Ariel Theatrical 20 years ago. Having grown up in LA doing theater, Higginbotham was on her way to New York when love drastically changed her plans.
“I ended up getting married and having five children instead,” Higginbotham says. “I wanted there to be something for them like I had, but there was nothing [in Salinas] to take them to. So I founded Ariel. If not me, then who, right?”
With Ariel, Higginbotham says she’s created an environment where the wonderful, enriching aspects of theater can be experienced without the negative aspects.
“The operating word around here is ‘respect,’” Higginbotham says. “Most of these children will not go on to pursue theatrical careers, but we give them tools to help them in their personal and professional lives.”
Higginbotham also recognizes how busy children are these days and as a result, Ariel has “a very lean approach to rehearsal.”
“We have two-hour rehearsals three times a week and a four-hour rehearsal on the weekend,” Higginbotham says. “Our rehearsal schedule is usually only 5-6 weeks. The expectation is they come prepared to work and they don’t sit around.”
It’s obvious from Redwall that Ariel’s rehearsals are highly productive affairs, and it’s clear from the children’s performances that they’re having the time of their lives.
As Jackson scurried out of the theater, clearly happy to have escaped the rats with his hide intact, I couldn’t help thinking that, in a few years, my little man may be begging to join Cluney the Scourge’s mercenary ranks.
REDWALL PLAYS 7PM FRIDAY AND 2PM AND 7PM SATURDAY AT THE WILSON CHILDREN’S THEATRE, 320 MAIN ST., SALINAS. $8/GENERAL; $5/AGES 3-12; FREE/UNDER AGE 3. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT UPCOMING PRODUCTIONS AND GETTING YOUR CHILDREN INVOLVED IN ARIEL’S THEATER PROGRAM, VISIT WWW.ARIELTHEATRICAL.ORG OR CALL775-0976.