If it's been a while since you've been to children's theatre, a play like this world premiere of "Holes" should eliminate any preconceptions you might have of cute bunnies and magic princesses. It is intended for children age nine and above. Adapted for the stage by the novel's author, Louis Sachar, this is a surprisingly dark and complex story of a boy, Stanley, who is unjustly convicted of stealing a valuable pair of sneakers, and sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of a desert. Director Linda Hartzell has managed a neat balance of the somewhat melodramatic story and the very genuine themes. The script, while not as rich as the novel, remains faithful. It has plenty of tension, good theatrical technique, and familiar but distinct characters.
At the ironically named Camp Green Lake, Stanley and the other boys are forced to dig a hole five feet wide and five feet deep in the sun-baked lakebed each day. A good part of the story is concerned with how they work together, the conflicts between them, and the effects of hardships on character. Digging holes seems completely pointless, but in fact, they are really serving the Warden's desire to recover a buried treasure left many years before by a notorious bandit, Kissin' Kate Barlow. She became a bandit after falling in love with the wrong man. She was white and he was black, and when they tried to escape the racists in town, he was murdered. That legacy of intolerance is passed along to the young inmates through the Warden, her mean-spirited foreman Mister Sir, and the nasty counselor Mr. Pendanski. When it becomes clear that Zero, Stanley's new friend, is in mortal danger, Zero escapes across the desert. Stanley's pursuit, and their means of survival, lead to the treasure's discovery, as well as to their own freedom.
As Stanley, MJ Sieber is likeable and energetic, a kid whose innocence is tested but not destroyed by the injustice he's surrounded by. As the reticent boy, Zero, Darragh Kennan emerges slowly, but sustains his own degree of mystery and intrigue. Of the other inmates, Kevin Warren is outstanding as the big, not-to-be-trifled-with, fellow called Armpit. His combination of danger and vulnerability makes all of the others that much more sympathetic, and his energy is as big as the landscape. David Drummond has a great time with the character of the cruel taskmaster, Mister Sir, playing it with a good deal of malice and not too much exaggeration. Perhaps the most subtle and fully realized characterization is Kate, played with decency and conviction by Julia Briskman. For me, Marianne Owen is a bit disappointing as the Warden, neither as perverse nor as powerful as I'd imagined her from the book.
Beyond an engaging and neatly plotted mystery, this is a story of friendship and cooperation, of justice and morality. Director Hartzell makes a clear connection between the audience and her suffering inmates, and I think any kid can imaginatively put him or herself in the position of being at the mercy of powers beyond their control, that are manifestly unfair and without explanation. She's a bit less successful at maintaining an increasing level of danger. When the boys find themselves in a hole filled with poisonous lizards, for example, it is initially quite frightening, but goes on too long, and we begin to see the machinery, and lose the danger and fear. Similarly, all the inmates seem to work and tire at about the same pace, and that robs the ensemble of some variety. Overall, however, the action is brisk and exciting, and the rather abstract theatrical concept of moving between different time periods is handled with clarity and confidence.
The ingenious set design, by Carey Wong, uses a raised platform with sliding portals for the holes, ever shifting and still distressingly similar, set in front of nicely painted landscape drops. The lighting, by Greg Sullivan, provides both the merciless glare of the desert and the shifting mystery of the past.
What most impressed me about this work, and this production, was the legitimacy of the storytelling, of the characters, and of the straightforward performance. This is popular literature that respects the intelligence and insight of its young audience. By a show of hands, about ninety five percent of the kids had read the novel, and they were a demanding, but satisfied audience. This is a good adventure, smartly conceived and competently performed, ultimately entertaining us with a thought provoking, intriguing story. If only more adult plays accomplished as much.
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