Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Review: The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, adapted by Alan Bennett, produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, directed by Alexander Burns, featuring Khris Davis, Daniel Fredrick, Sean Close, Jake Blouch, Jamison Foreman.

Review: The Wind in the Willows

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by Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

Quintessence Theatre Group takes its mission seriously, presenting classic works performed by a regular ensemble that features some of Philly's finest young actors. So it stands to reason that when the company decided to mount its first production aimed at children and families, it would pick Alan Bennett's 21/2-hour adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and not, say, Jack and the Beanstalk.

As parents know, even with an intermission, 150 minutes is a very long time for toddlers and their elementary school brethren to remain in their seats fidget-free. Consider also that director Alexander Burns makes little concession to Disneyesque cute-ification of the 1908 tale's woodland creatures. The rabbits, tail- and earless - save a swirly white fascinator on lady bunny Lee Minora - adopt twitchy leporine postures. A draft horse, Albert (Sean Bradley), merely hangs his heavy head while calling for worker protections. Weasels slink about with pinched faces, but thanks to costumer Jane Casanave, they're also dressed like Jersey mobsters in white turtlenecks, fedoras, and camel blazers.

Burns' subtle anthropomorphism becomes even subtler among Grahame's principals. Toad's belly is stuffed full, but it's Khris Davis' bug-eyed self-importance that resonates. Daniel Fredrick's Rat twitches his mustache over a very British, very stiff upper lip, but softens around his best friends: unassuming, rumpled Mole (Sean Close) and gruff Badger (Jake Blouch). Badger has stripes in his beard and Rat puffs about in Harris tweed, but these characterizations matter most for who they are, not what they are - a fine message at any age.

Equally lovely are Jamison Foreman's nickelodeon-style piano-playing and the appearance of the much-adored Piper at the Gates of Dawn, depicted as a laurel-wreathed classical figure shrouded in smoke, an image sure to stick in an awestruck youngster's subconscious. These, along with David Cope's original music (a Brechtian "Where's Toad?" chant is particularly hilarious) and Burns' simple set - a sheet waved at both ends to indicate flowing water, upturned chairs lit from below to serve as a bonfire, a black wheeled cart that becomes a boat, a locomotive, and several of Toad's ill-fated automobiles - make magic from the everyday, much as a child might. 

And that's Quintessence's secret for keeping every age engaged. This fully formed production neither condescends to its audience nor betrays its source. Though Mount Airy's Sedgwick Theatre needs a better heating unit (bundle up those kids), onstage there's warmth enough to spare.

Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., through Jan. 5. Tickets: $15 to $25. Information: 215-987-4450 or QuintessenceTheatre.org

 

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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