Peter and the Wolf
Second Youth's new version of Prokofiev's tale starts in Stalinist Russia, but that adds to its magic
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 9, 2008
Peter and the Wolf
Dougherty Arts Center Theatre, through May 17
Running time: 35 min
The lights come up on a stage littered with figures in heavy coats who sit slumped in doorways and around stacked crates. So still and silent are they that, were it not for the lined faces peering out from the upturned collars and woolen scarves, you might take them for heaps of winter clothes. But then come the men in long coats and narrow eyes, who poke and prod these worn souls and hold out their hands expectantly, forcing them to rise and produce papers that the men pore over with a predator's gaze. Freedom and imprisonment, even life and death, hover over this railroad platform in the breathless moment before the sneering men nod dismissively, thrust the papers back, and stride on.
This grim setting of weary peasants and authoritarian police hardly seems the world of Peter and the Wolf. Where are the animals, the amusing creatures who purr, tweet, and quack around the cottage that Peter calls home? And where is the resourceful boy himself, the one who stops the lupine menace stalking the Russian countryside? Fear not, dear audience, they're there, as is Prokofiev's beloved score, but in this new telling, adaptors Leslie Hollingsworth and Julianna Wright take a little time to reveal them to you. First, they want you to see the world in which Prokofiev wrote his charming tale, the world of the Soviet Union under Stalin just prior to World War II. Beset as it is by poverty and repression, it's not a place where it's easy to believe in magic, and the boy named Peter admits that he doesn't to the man who has struck up a conversation with him. But this man, whose name is Sergei (!), has a different idea, and he begins to spin a yarn for the boy, about a wolf terrorizing a village and the plucky lad who stops him (with a bit of assistance from a duck, a bird, a cat, and his grandfather). And as Sergei introduces each character, a snatch of music breaks the air, and one of the previously inert figures huddled about this train station springs to life and becomes that character, revealing his or her personality through brightly set dance steps and gestures. Before long, we're deep in the story, with all of our familiar friends prancing, skipping, and stamping about to the catchy strains of Prokofiev's music.
Second Youth doesn't really need the framing device of Stalinist Russia to make this production work. The performers take to their characters with such zest and execute the steps of choreographers David Ponton and Karen Olson with such joy that each is able to captivate us almost instantly. And it was certainly clear at the opening performance that some of the youngest patrons would have preferred not to have had to wait to see Bird, Cat, Duck, and all the rest. But the company has employed this strategy many times through the seasons, almost always to great effect. It treats the story as theatrical, as an outsized version of "let's pretend," with ordinary objects being transformed into whatever the story requires by imagination and our own beliefs. And the second layer of story provided by the framing device gives those of us who already know how things come out something new to consider that may perhaps enrich our understanding of a story we thought we knew.
In this case, we're reminded that even in times of hardship and privation and sorrow, there are things that can break through the cold and warm us, that can give us a kind of magic: Stories. Music. Dance. They know no time and no limit. Even in the midst of winter, a boy may still do a jaunty kick, and birds will sing.