When a story points out people's tendency to be unreasonably afraid of things that are bigger and more powerful than they are, the ending can be tragic for the big-and-powerful. If you've never checked Frankenstein or Of Mice and Men out on Netflix, please skip over these spoilers: it doesn't end happily for the Doc's creation or the galumphing Lennie. We can be more hopeful in the realm of modern children's lit, where death isn't dealt out as gratuitously as it was in the good old fairytales.
In the relatively brief history of defanging the nocturnal terrors we once simply slaughtered, The Reluctant Dragon, as penned by Kenneth Grahame in 1898, preceded a similar neutering, Ferdinand the Bull, by nearly 40 years. Does it sound like I abhor these palliative, PC makeovers of the classic bedtime storytelling experience? Well, pelt me with your rainbows and buttercups if you disagree.
As we see so cunningly in the current Children's Theatre of Charlotte's production at ImaginOn, Grahame's yarn, as adapted by Mary Hall Surface and directed by Adam Burke, takes us back centuries to when dragons still reigned as terrors in the minds of innocent children and ignorant villagers. Pulleys and hawser ropes raise the sun, the moon, the clouds, and even the village of Geldemere in Jeffrey D. Kmiec's evocative, fabulously faux set design. Co-conspirator Ryan Wineinger creates a series of rear projections that depict the Dragon and his climactic three-round bout with famed dragonslayer St. George.
This stage-filling screen lifts to reveal Magda Guichard's bodacious puppet design - the live version of the massive reptile, wielded by no fewer than four people, including its speaker, Mark Sutton. It was a great consolation to reactionary curmudgeons like me that, despite the friendly contours of Guichard's design - and despite Sutton's veddy British assurances that he takes tea, writes poetry, and paints watercolors - the mere sight of him scared a couple of the youngest anklebiters at last Saturday's matinee out of their wits.
Political correctness be damned, there is something to be afraid of when something the size of an 18-wheeler comes at you with its mouth open. Sure, cry your lungs out!
On the other hand, the "you have to be carefully taught" theory of prejudice prevails at McColl Family Theatre, purveyed likably enough by Steven Ivey and Allison Rhinehart as Woolchester and Darby, the nervous parents of our hero Glaston. More fear-mongering are Morpeth and Grimsby, portrayed by Greta Marie Zandstra and Chaz Pofahl. Rounding out the village is Lady Kendal, with Darlene Parker projecting a far more conceited stupidity than the peasant class.
As the clear-eyed Glaston, Nicholas Stephens adds some welcome spark to a vanilla role in his Charlotte debut, exuding boyish enthusiasm even when he's serving as peacemaker between the two colossal adversaries. With another newcomer, David Warwick, as St. George, the main source of friction between the combatants often seems to be the question of which one is more proper and polite. Clad in silvery armor, Warwick strikes a volatile balance between brute bellicosity and fastidious purity, an invaluable aid to sustaining the story's suspense.
At the head of the mammoth puppet - usually with both hands full - Sutton manages to convey the impression that life is one long perpetual high tea. When the Dragon does take flight, fiercely winning the first two rounds of the projected joust, and when we finally see that the Reluctant One really can breathe smoke if he puts his mind to it, I found myself genuinely surprised. In less than an hour, my expectations had been turned upside-down.