Smelling like crayons and old Dr. Seuss paperbacks, the Christ Church basement feels like a haven for children. The Yale Children’s Theater has made the trek from the confines of Dwight Hall to its new space in the church on the periphery of campus.
Ironically, the church’s foreboding exterior appears to be the kind of place children would flee from rather than flock to. YCT’s production of “The Dry River” inaugurates its new space with a charming production.
Directed by Andy Levine ’08, and written by Levine and co-YCT artistic director Michelle Bulger ’07, the play is based on an unpublished manuscript that Levine’s friend discovered while working in a publishing office. It follows three characters trying to reconcile their eccentric identities with the norms of their city. Chudu (Laura Bennett ’09) is labeled a witch by the townspeople because of her ugly features and hunched back. Prince Christopher (Gary Jaffe ’10), a passionate violinist, struggles to gain the acceptance of his father, King Philip (Daniel Edeza ’10). Though raised to be intelligent and independent, the young Armida (Liz Rodrick ’10) is forced to conform to her stepmother’s standards of what it is to be proper.
Fleeing the town that does not accept them, the three characters meet in the nearby mountains. There they encounter the absurdly named and hilariously depicted Six-Fingered Man (Jason Sullivan ’10), who has been causing a drought in the town for many years. The characters find that they are powerless to defeat the Six-Fingered Man as long as they maintain their assumed identities. They are only strong in being themselves.
Although pretentious college students may explore the questions of gender identity raised in the plot, this story is fittingly fluffy. Intended for local children, “The Dry River” offers a glimpse of theater and a world of art beyond artless television. But it also offers adults a cathartic escape to a simpler world in which Mother Goose has seized the dramatic throne from Shakespeare and Beckett.
The presentation is wonderful: The actors blend well with a cartoonish backdrop and bright costumes; at times, Bennet plays Chudu so convincingly that we often forget she is not a cartoon herself. The principal actors all create charming characters with moments of surprising emotional depth. They are reminiscent of old Disney movies, and it seems that a musical prelude could drift in from the wings at any moment.
Some of the speech in the play is hypnotic, recalling nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss and even some early Scottish ballads with its use of rhyme, repetition and echoing dialogue. In one memorable scene, the three principals speak three separate monologues within a single rhythmic structure, mirroring the common sense of urgency each feels in climbing the mountain alone. What is engrossing to a college student will probably be overwhelming to the YCT’s average audience member.
For those students who are more interested in burlesque than nostalgia, there is a Yalie-exclusive Friday performance of “The Dry River,” in which the cast will thoroughly pervert the play’s script. The text has been Easter-egged with mild sexual innuendos as inspiration for dirty improvisational comedy. For example, the opening scene includes one character selling snake skins, and a later dialogue ignores the obvious implication of two characters “rolling in the mud.”
Besides this special performance, the group will hold four or five local shows over the weekend before touring area schools. The program seeks to inspire those children in New Haven who would otherwise never see a performance of a play. Some of the performances will take place at inner-city schools, and this Sunday’s show will be free. In their new, warmer and more comfortable home, YCT hopes to continue to grow and inspire as they have in past years.
The Dry River
Yale Children’s Theater, 84 Broadway
Friday 9 p.m. (Yalies only dirty show)
Saturday and Sunday, 1 & 3 p.m.