by Mary ElizaBeth Peters
Teaching Artist at WFT blog contributor
Teaching Artist at WFT blog contributor
When you look for a play that the whole family will enjoy, you look first to Wheelock Family Theatre. WFT is known for creating plays that are not only enjoyable to young kids – as young as three! – but to entire families. WFT simply does not believe in staging plays that are “just for the kiddies,” and they go overboard to make sure their dance, comedy and acting styles are truly inclusive to every person who comes through the door. Because of this commitment – everyone comes through the door.
That being said, I entered the opening night performance of Honk! with some trepidation. WFT usually plans a season that has a play for each child age group: lower elementary; upper elementary; middle and high school. However, the young show doesn’t usually go that young. I was not that intrigued by the idea of this simple story. And to be brutally honest, Honk! is sort of known for turning out poorly. The script by Drewe and Stiles is simply not that strong.
To my surprise, I was entertained from start to finish, not only by the performance of Honk! itself, but by the WFT experience at opening night. It was wonderful to read the bios of young WFT actors, as well as seasoned professionals, and see them work alongside one another. I felt a giddy feeling in my stomach for my former students when I saw each of them onstage, knowing that the experience alone of being in professional rehearsals will affect them as actors second and as young emotion-filled human beings first.
The production is visual dazzling – the colors and textures in the set and lighting design envelope you into the story. You are in the story book of young Ugly Duckling, and able to follow him on this visual journey as the play progresses.
The casting was quite impressive, incorporating actors in age from elementary school to retirement, and containing an ethnically diverse cast as we have come to take for granted at WFT. I can honestly say that performances were strong throughout the cast, and particularly from the young dancers, who made their performances as fish, frogs and chickens seem effortless. Jane Staab directed, and her choice to have the actors-as-animals play more human, than animal, worked well for me. Young audience members did not seem confused at all and the story was made clearer without hammy animal accents or cheesy indicative motions. The actors, instead, worked to represent their animal selves through subtle gesture and a way of walking, running, or dancing. In this way, their movement was fluid and beautiful in its storytelling.
The audience audibly gasped and murmured seeing the beautiful set reveal at the top of the show, and following each set change. Matthew T. Lazure’s set design, and particularly his choice of color and texture, was beautiful, silly, and left a lot for the audience to visually explore throughout the production. His attention to shape was impeccable, as well. The part of my drama teacher mind that still works like a five year old was entertained finding the stars and triangles throughout the design. The Duckling eggs alone gave me a shape-shifting giggle. Without ruining their surprise use onstage, I will say that seeing the ducks put on their dancing feet first was a silly, energizing choice that still makes me chuckle to remember.
Cheo Bourne was excellent as Ugly, and this young professional actor was a great example to his younger fellow actors backing him up. His timing was wonderful, his speaking voice and articulation were clear, and his emotional journey was both heartwarming and on-par with the intended audience for this production. Stealing the show – Greylag, or the General Goose, played by Scott Severance. He cracked me up, and had the audience rolling. Just when you thought their antics could not get any more ridiculous, Gary Thomas Ng would one-up the group and we would be in stitches again.
Once again, WFT delivers a top-notch production from beginning to end that will be sure to delight audiences throughout the run! In particular, I encourage every WFT drama student and Wheelock College future educator to take in this show!