Roald Dahlwas a very special writer, one with the ability to create fabulous imaginary places, populated with memorable and extraordinary characters, make it all instantly comprehensible even to very small children, and simultaneously intrigue and engage any adult within range. This master storyteller dances with language, making it at once playful, enticing, ridiculous and sublime. "The Big Friendly Giant" is children's literature that belongs to the tradition of fairy tales, but with a uniquely modern sensibility, and a distinctly mature, but whimsical, intelligence. Children comprehend even the parts they don't understand, and adults are reminded how much remains beyond what we think we do understand.
This handsome and delightful production, expertly directed by Steve Pearson, is inventive and smart, thoroughly committed to the pure language of the storytelling, while exploiting all the imaginative power of the stage, both in terms of physical production and the participation of the audience in creating illusion. Combining puppets both large and small with human characters (and, of course, real giants), it tells the story of a girl named Sophie, who is abducted by a friendly giant, and taken to a land where less friendly giants regularly feast on human children. The Big Friendly Giant, on the other hand, has a much more benign occupation. His job is to capture marvelous dreams, and then to blow them into the rooms of sleeping children. During the course of the story, we see not only how he's able to enlist human forces to defeat the bad giants, but also to look in on some of those sweet dreams. And, of course, we're able to see how good a friend this unlikely creature becomes to one little orphan girl.
As the Big Friendly Giant, David Gehrman is likeable and straightforward, which is perfect, given his twisted and convoluted language, always delivered as if it was the most obvious and sensible speech in the world, and the fact that he is as intimidated by the other giants as most of us would be. That he is not in the least frightening is made up for by Bonecruncher, Fleshlumpeater, Gizzardgulper and Childchewer, and the rest of the two-headed, gnarly-toothed nasties that inhabit Giant Country. These marvelous puppets, devised by Douglas Paasch and Melanie Taylor Burgess compliment the very small Sophie, a doll that embodies and is empowered by Jennifer Sue Johnson. Ms. Johnson does a fine job of helping us make the imaginative leap that the doll is the speaker, and the speaker is only there so that we know how human the doll is. Again, the imaginative power of the stage enables us to create the extraordinary in a much more vivid way than more sophisticated technical effects ever could.
The play is filled with witty and fanciful events, performed with great cleverness. I loved the dream of a stern headmistress who suddenly cavorts into wild dancing with the strict headmaster. Children were delighted by the fantasies of flatulence that had both the BFG and Sophie jetting around the stage. A military raid to capture sleeping giants featured shadow puppets of helicopters complete with landing parties. The Queen of England (hilariously played by Annette Toutonghi) sleeps with her royal gown and sash on, and seems no less artificial as a puppet on the balcony of Buckingham Palace than when speaking with the Queen of Sweden on the telephone. Whether in London, in Giant Land, or traveling across the countryside by dark of night, set designer Robert Andrew Dahlstrom creates attractive, workable environments and vistas. The constant visual variety provided by shifting perspective was both literal, giving us wildly flexible scale, and figurative, in the way it constantly re-defined the relationship of the world to the characters within it.
That's all getting a bit more theoretical than what's really going on here, however. This is storytelling, and the story is exciting, warm, adventurous, incredible and full of imaginative possibility. It's the sort of thing to scare you deeper under the covers of a cozy bed, and to send you bravely off to a sleep where wonderful dreams really happen, and where the world is as big and frightening and, ultimately, manageable as child-gobbling Giants.
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