AISLE SAY Florida 

THE GIVER

Adapted by Eric Coble from Lois Lowry’s Book
Directed by KJ Sanchez
Historic Asolo Theatre
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota / (941) 351-8000
To November 9, 2008
Student Matinees By Arrangement

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

 

Partners Asolo Repertory Theatre, Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, and The Ringling Museum of Art are collaborating with Sarasota-Bradenton schools in an educational and cultural sharing. Intersecting literature, theatre, and visual art, the New Series partnership offers performances followed by discussions and then carefully crafted tours by selected docents of the museum’s works focusing on themes presented in The Giver. By days, students aged 11 to 14 explore—like the book and play’s central figure Jonas—history, personal experiences and memories. In the evenings, the play, acted by final-year M.F.A. students from FSU/Asolo Conservatory, is offered to the general public. Aftertalks with actors and staff welcome all to question meanings and suggest their applications to life, especially of young people today.
 
In the story’s gray world, sameness characterizes both atmosphere and all the chalky-clad people, who happily know no pain, hunger, strife, individualistic desires or deep emotions. All are Insiders who share facts and feelings of their daily life, thus putting down personality development and deviations. At a Ceremony of Twelve, each birthday person complies with assignment by a Council of Elders to his or her work and safe “place” in the adult community. Some may have children to care for—but only two, one of each sex to keep the population even, and no twins. They’d only confuse things and might not be equally fit. When old, all go to a reserved area of peace, also accommodating nonconformants of any age, to await Release.
 
Jonas (sincere, effective Kevin O’Callaghan) is an exception to the rule. He sees flashes of color, dreams of wanting, and feels a Stirring toward Fiona (Michelle Trachtenberg, rightly placid up to a startling end).  At the Ceremony, Asher (furtive David Yearta) becomes a recreation head (who leads violent games); Father and Mother (Jason Peck and Heather Kelley, emotionally blank as required) agree to nurture children; Lily (lively Elisabeth Ahrens) accepts not being chosen a Birth Mother. Chief Elder (dignified Steven O’Brien) finally appoints Jonas to be the unusual Receiver of Memory, since he has exhibited the Capacity of Seeing Beyond.  Medicated against emotion and placed under certain rules, like not telling his friends about his position, he is sent to The Giver (mature, incisive Brent Bateman). Living behind a doorway midst huge stacks of books, he keeps the Memory of all that’s happened for all generations in the outside world, in the event of a dire future need for experience or learning the Elders lack.  Honored but not powerful, The Giver has become over-weighted with memories and desires Release, particularly from a memory of one he loved and could not save. In a series of mentally transmitted lessons, he passes on to Jonas such knowledge as of animals, nature, family, holidays, color, and experience of tastes, love, pain, physical exhilaration, war, climate changes, and a little music. Jonas becomes discontent with his unfeeling community. He wants change, especially when a twin named Gabe, whom he loves, is destined for Release. If Jonas leaves, his memories can be dispersed, with all that will mean for the community. Escaping with Gabe, yet facing starvation, Jonas sleds off to an ambiguous destiny. 
 
In several ways, The Giver  is a dramatic vehicle running on two tracks. It tells of a Utopia that is anti-utopian and even cruel but it never posits a positive Utopia in its place. It is science fiction without any exaggerated characters or potions other than tranquilizers and with no mention of science or unusual technology. (Low-tech white bicycles are the only means of transportation.) It is a morality play without basis in a system of beliefs with a moral code. (Favorable images of a Christmas celebration may suggest Christianity but no powerful connection is made.)  As an allegory, The Giver paradoxically uses language and situation with a sort of eternal present to point out the importance of the past. As a drama of suspense, it relies on an audience not knowing the book on which it is based is part of a trilogy that, if known, sends the ambiguity of the ending into a Release.
 
Like the play, the production is somewhat divided against itself and purpose. Mature students play--but never really become--children, who then turn into adults still very much as they were before the Ceremony.  This may be the way Director KJ Sanchez interprets sameness of the community. However, with no progressive action, later scenes just seem same-old. Early ones take place in front of an impressive ceiling-to-floor gauzy curtain, allowing a hazy glimpse of, apparently, a library flanked by a statue in back.  But what turns out to be The Giver’s library is never used in the giving and receiving of Memory! Nor is any attention given to the artwork. Rather all knowledge is presented via screened images, and feelings, which seem to be more important, are conveyed through telepathy.  How ironic for a project connected to a book and to visiting a museum of art! There’s good to be said, though, about clever use of a bench as a launching pad into learning. An Ensemble (DeMario McGrew and Randolph Paulsen) helps with transitions and narrative, aiding the not quite full dramatization of Lois Lowry’s book.
 
Too bad a playwright of stature has not written a work for middle schoolers or young adults to see and based on one or more paintings in the Ringling Museum. That would be one unique basis for a New Stages  project like The Giver--but better.
 
The crew of the 70 minute drama consists of Scenic Designer: Daniel Conway; Costumes: Jill Wetzel; Lights: Sarah Mikrut; Sound: Matthew Parker; Stage Manager: Sarah Gleissner.

 

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