Review: `The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)’

Nov 02

Some of the enthusiastic cast members of Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) are (clockwise from top right) Nkechi, Alona Bach, Tom Darci and Niko Darci-Maher. Photo by Kevin Berne.

 

Berkeley Playhouse scores big fun with energetic `Giant’
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In only its second full production, Berkeley Playhouse is proving itself to be a joyously reliable practitioner of family theater.

You hear the words “family theater” and tend to think of precious shows on a shoestring budget that mean well but can’t really compete with the wealth of other entertainments grabbing kids’ attention.

But Berkeley Playhouse, under the artistic direction of Elizabeth McKoy, really gets it. McKoy and her team, in addition to running classes for all ages and popular summer programs, create theater that is indeed for the entire family, meaning that adults will enjoy the experience as much as the children.

At a Saturday afternoon performance of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), a 1982 Roald Dahl story adapted for the stage by David Wood, the packed audience at the Ashby Stage was fairly evenly split between large and small theatergoers – and it’s difficult to imagine anyone in that crowd not having a grand time.

Following last year’s vibrant, vital Seussical, the Musical, Berkeley Playhouse presents something entirely different but equally as entertaining.

From the delectably twisted imagination of Dahl comes the tale of an orphan named Sophie and the BFG, a big, friendly giant in charge of blowing dreams into children’s slumbering brains. One night, a sleepless Sophie sees the giant performing his duties, and rather than risk being tattled on and captured, the giant kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country.

The two lonely souls become fast friends, and Sophie discovers that the BFG is alone among his giant compatriots in that he is neither evil nor flesh eating. The rest of the over-sized bunch, with names such as Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecrusher, Meatdripper and Gizzardgulper, are foul and mean and threatening to go eat children in England.

It’s up to Sophie and the BFG to stop the carnage, so they cleverly enlist the help of the Queen of England, who marshals the resources of her navy and air force.

It’s a charming story, but the telling of it in this imaginative production is the real delight.

The play begins at a birthday party for Sophie (Alona Bach) being held in her family’s attic (fantastic set design by Kim Tolman). It’s total chaos because the hired entertainers haven’t shown up, Sophie’s mom (Nkechi) is screaming into her mobile phone and the children are wreaking havoc on the harried maid.

Sophie’s dad (Tom Darci) arrives with a package, but it’s strangely empty. “Sometimes it’s best to leave things a little loose,” he says. Then Sophie’s teenage brother (Rob Dario) arrives with his skateboarder buddies, prompting one young party-goer to moan: “Teenagers! Devastating!”

But the teens have an idea to restore order to the proceedings. They enlist everyone’s help – child and adult – to act out Sophie’s favorite story, which happens to be The BFG. Using props they find in the attic, they unfurl the story in deliciously creative ways.

The mean, ugly giants, for example, are all created by one kid partnered with one adult using household items such as crutches, umbrellas, colanders and toys. But the designs are ingeniously simple and effective (costumes are by BJ Bandy, props are by Hannah Phillips Ryan – and it’s hard to know where costumes end and props begin).

Darci plays the giant, and Sophie plays herself … sort of. To convey the sense of giant and tiny human, the character of Sophie is played by a stuffed turtle in a nightdress, and the human Sophie provides the voice.

Director Jon Tracy miraculously orchestrates the mayhem and keeps the storytelling crisp and clear. The performers, both young and old, are all capable and better yet, seem to be having a marvelous time. There’s not a weak link in the cast of 14, and everyone gets a moment to shine.

Everyone seems to relish Dahl’s linguistic flourishes as the giant talks of foul-tasting snozzcumbers, brain-bogglingsome dilemmas and stinky but musical whizzpoppers (with a young audience, there’s no end to the delight ignited by flatulence jokes).

Everything about the show is designed with young people foremost in mind. The first act contains the meat of the show, and the long, steam-letting intermission is followed by a short second act and a curtain call that invites a young audience member to come on stage and create a giant from several baskets of toys and props. Then all young audience members are invited to come up and grab a giant prop to take home. The whole experience is a kid-friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes, or thereabouts.

That’s interactive in the best sense. And of course there are winks to the adults as well. Taking a call from the American president, a young man says, “Oh, thanks Barack.” It’s also mentioned in passing that even Sarah Palin has had her share of whizzpoppers.

Fresh, funny and with far more imagination than your average movie, TV show or video game, Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG is a BFD: a bright, fanciful, delight.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The BFG continues through Nov. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $22 for children and $28 for adults. Special “pay what you can” Thursday performances Nov. 6 and 13. Every full-time K-12 teacher gets in free. Call 510-665-5565 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

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