Dougherty Arts Center Theater, through May 13
Running Time: 55 min
Second Youth Family Theatre has been operating in Austin almost as long as I have, and that's a fairly long while. In that time, the company has managed successfully to produce live theatre productions that appeal not only to those of a younger persuasion but to adults, as well (and thus the "second youth" and the "family" in the name). Having seen more than a few Second Youth productions over the last decade and a half, I can say that, almost without exception, the company has produced work that consistently exploits the magic of live theatre, particularly with productions such as The Snow Queen and The Hobbit, in which the company so creatively has used puppets to enhance their stories. In addition, Second Youth has chosen scripts with themes that many might not necessarily be considered as being appropriate for children, stories such as A Christmas Carol and The Arkansaw Bear, challenging its own and its audience's notions of what children's theatre should be. As far as I'm concerned, Second Youth has set the standard for children's theatre in Austin, and a high standard it is.
Of course, not everyone can always live up to his or her own standards, and that is the case with this latest Second Youth production. One of the company's co-artistic directors, Leslie Hollingsworth, both wrote and directed the current offering. That might have been a misstep, as it's possible that a different, perhaps more objective individual might have been able to persuade her to improve on what, to this ear, sounded like too much clichéd dialogue and weak versification. If the story were strong, it could have overcome the seeming weaknesses in the writing, but the story proved to be weak, as well. The lesson that the importance of any individual is not measured from without but from within is certainly worthy, but what was being taught was obvious from early on, and the conflict, such as it is, involving a page who wants attention and a caterpillar that doesn't, isn't fleshed out enough to justify the title. Strangely, the strongest roles in the show aren't the page or the caterpillar but the wailing, self-centered princess and the officious if forgetful prince.
Even the least accomplished of scripts can work if it's given to a group of strong actors, but it's difficult to tell if these actors are strong or not. They certainly do not appear to possess confidence in Hollingsworth's story, as they consistently, from one actor to the next, deliver it at a single, fairly frenetic tempo. There are some cute ideas in the plot involving elephants, peanuts, chocolate soufflé, and butterflies, but in the end, it all blends together in a prolonged, albeit colorful, mishmash.
Still, the young people who were in the audience seemed to enjoy it. Every one I could see paid attention from beginning to end, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a better gauge of effectiveness than the one provided by a middle-aged, only slightly jaded thespian such as myself. Whether you find it works or not, it's certainly good-hearted, and that's more than I can say for most of the dreck that passes for cartoons nowadays.
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