Chicago Theatre Review
Whimsy Inventively Presented
James and the Giant Peach – Filament Theatre Company
In 1961, a young British author named Roald Dahl burst onto the literary scene with a children’s novel that set the standard for inventive juvenile literature, upon which every future fantasy novel would be judged. Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach would foreshadow the author’s later flights of imagination, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, The Witches, Matilda, and other novels intended for children, but equally adored by adults, as well. With its orphan boy protagonist, the story’s filled with inventive language and the kinds of outlandish adventures kids enjoy.
James Henry Trotter suddenly becomes an orphan after his parents are unexpectedly devoured by an escaped rhinoceros from the London Zoo. His only living relatives, the evil, egotistical Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, reluctantly take in James but treat him as their slave, physically and emotionally abusing the little boy from dawn till dusk. One day an old magician happens by and gives James a sack of glowing, green crocodile tongues, which he accidentally spills onto a nearby peach tree.
Like Jack’s beanstalk, one of the peaches grows to an enormous size. When James climbs up onto the fuzzy fruit he finds it’s the home for a collection of critters, who’ve also grown in size. They include a grasshopper, a ladybug, a spider, a centipede and an ill-tempered earthworm. After the atrocious aunties make a fortune from tourists wanting to see their giant peach, James and his new friends liberate the enormous fruit from its branch. It then rolls down the hill, crushing his repulsive relatives in its wake, and heads out to sea. The story then takes James and his friends from the southern coast of England, across the ocean, up into the sky, finally ending up in New York City. Along the way, friendships are forged, adventures are enjoyed and lessons are learned.
Roald Dahl’s popular, whimsical story, which in 1996 made its way onto the silver screen, is adapted by British actor and playwright David Wood, known for his adaptations of the author’s other books. It captures most of Dahl’s unpredictably amusing story, condensing the book into a 70-minute, child-size portion. The production is creative and entertaining, while challenging both its actors and technical team. Utilizing origami props, hand and shadow puppetry and featuring aerial artistry and juggling skills, Filament’s production is a circus of multi-sensory delights. Smoothly and energetically directed by Kathryn Walsh, the show makes excellent use of Sarah JHP Watkins’ large performance area that allows her actors plenty of room to play, climb and swing. The wide, gymnasium-like expanse, is laced with rigging and sports several assorted, surprise-filled trunks and suitcases, whose contents are revealed as the story unfolds. The upstage wall features a large, translucent, peach-shaped screen, upon which the audience is treated to several of the more dramatic moments, all depicted in shadow.
Christian Libonati is sweetly innocent as James, the little boy whose life changes when he makes some unusual friends within the giant peach. Mr. Libonati gets to display his acting chops, while competently strutting his circus skills, as well. Nathan Drackett is a standout, playing both a lanky, giant-size Aunt Spiker (masterfully stilt-walking, with ease), as well as a multi-limbed, acrobatic Centipede. His agility, handsome countenance and good humor make his amiable arthropod the undisputed leader of James’ invertebrate buddies. Mr. Drackett’s also credited with choreographing all the circus skills for the cast. Sarah August Hecht makes a gluttonous, hateful Aunt Sponge but is gentle and goodnatured as Ladybird. Rasika Ranganathan is stunning, sinewy and stylish as Miss Spider, and Ryan Westwood’s Old Green Grasshopper, outfitted with a variety of instruments, provides the original jaunty musical score, composed by Timothy McNulty. Mr. Westwood’s mastery of a perfect Scottish burr adds a Gaelic gaiety to his portrayal that’s hard to forget. Lindsey Dorcus, whose talent has been enjoyed around town in other noteworthy roles, is terrific as the very proper, but surly Earthworm. Tossing off lines like discarded banana peels, Ms. Dorcus is hilarious in her deadpan delivery. The actress also doubles as the funny old man who offers James just enough magic to escape from his personal hell.
The entire production is inventive, filled with humor and adventure, and sure to hold the interest of youngsters of all ages. Whether or not familiar with Roald Dahl’s delightful novel, this production will captivate family audiences with its unexpected creativity and unique comedy. Enhanced by Noel Huntzinger’s colorful, cleverly-designed costumes (the multi-legged Centipede takes the prize), Andrew Marchetti’s innovative puppets and props and Matthew Chapman’s evocative sound design, this is an enchanting, much-welcome winter treat that will captivate audiences of all ages.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 7-March 15 by Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-270-1660 or by going to www.filamenttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.