Through the woods darkly: kids’ shows turn tough

Lois Lowry's 'Gathering Blue' wraps an onstage adolescent adventure around a world of adult ideas

Camille Cettina (left), Stephanie Roessler, "Gathering Blue." Photo: Owen Carey

Camille Cettina (left), Stephanie Roessler, “Gathering Blue.” Photo: Owen Carey

The sharp whooshing sound of 250 or so middle-school kids inhaling in shock together can fill a theater in a most exhilarating way. It’s a pretty good sign, even against a steady rustle of fidgeting in the seats, that the story’s got the audience hooked. An Important Revelation has taken place, and everyone in the room realizes that suddenly the entire balance of events has shifted.

Well, that’s the way stories work. In this case the story is young-adult legend Lois Lowry’s 2000 novel “Gathering Blue,” in a world-premiere stage adaptation by Eric Coble, at a Tuesday morning show by Oregon Children’s Theatre in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre. And the Important Revelation is – well, we’ll leave that unspoken. Certain things are better experienced first-hand.

It’s a good season in Portland for what used to be called kids’ shows, although the definition of what exactly constitutes children’s literature and theater has been stretched in the past half-century as attitudes about childhood and adolescence have changed: If J.D. Salinger were sending the manuscript of “Catcher in the Rye” to his publishers today, he might find it being marketed as a young-adult novel. (Plus, he’d have to blog and tweet incessantly about the enchanting life of writing for young people, and how much he loves kids.) Uncomfortable truths have elbowed their way into the tea party, not replacing the familiar tales of whimsy and comfort but taking their place alongside them and adding a different sort of challenge. Certainly Matthew B. Zrebski’s super-heated young-adult musical “Ablaze,” entering the final weekend of a passionately popular run in the Brunish Theatre, does that. And Northwest Children’s Theatre has just opened an updated, tap-dancing musical version of “Cinderella,” with a fresh score by jazz pianist and composer Ezra Weiss, that gives Ella something more significant to do than just scrub the floor tiles and pine after the prince. We haven’t seen it yet, but the show sounds promising: Weiss’s previous shows for NWCT, a jazz version of “Alice in Wonderland” and the musical “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” were solid hits.

For Oregon Children’s Theatre, “Gathering Blue” continues a remarkably successful run of plays based on Lowry’s books that began with Coble’s adaptation of “The Giver” and continued with Lowry’s own stage adaptation of her novel “Gossamer.” All three stage projects have been world premieres, and “The Giver,” in particular, has been successful, with well over 200 productions since it opened in Portland in 2006. (Coble, by the way, has also premiered stage versions of “The Storm in the Barn” and “Sacagawea” at OCT.)

“Gathering Blue” is a sequel of sorts to Lowry’s immensely popular 1993 novel “The Giver,” although only in that its action takes place in another corner of the same post-disaster dystopian future. (Two more novels, “Messenger” and “Son,” make it a quartet.) While “The Giver” presents a carefully controlled pseudo-paradise of niceness, the society of “Gathering Blue” is almost its opposite – a rough, extremely tribal culture living with a very rudimentary level of technology and relying deeply on ritual and a harsh code of justice to maintain itself.

For young readers, such radically conceived worlds (and others in Lowry’s novels, such as the Nazi-occupied Denmark of “Number the Stars”) create provocative and sometimes troubling possibilities that push far beyond the comforts of Dick and Jane. During a panel talk Sunday afternoon among Lowry, Coble and director Stan Foote, moderator Ross McKeen asked which culture Coble and Lowry would rather live in if they were forced to choose one or the other. Coble immediately said “The Giver,” pointing out that unless you were one of the very few people in the know, everything seemed pretty comfortable. Lowry voted for “Gathering Blue,” because as primitive as its world is, at least you know where you stand. Any imagined future world contains elements of science fiction, and the contrast between the societies of “The Giver” and “Gathering Blue” made me think of H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine,” in which humankind has evolved into two branches: the timid, childlike, and hyper-automated society of the Eloi; and the underground culture of the savage Morlocks, who, as it turns out, are herding and harvesting the docile Eloi like cattle. As most audiences innately understand, the object is to bring the docile and the savage into some sort of internal balance.

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Nobody’s eating other people in “Gathering Blue,” but plenty of herding’s going on. Its culture is rigidly divided between haves and have-nots, and its very core is rooted in a lie. At the story’s center is a plucky heroine, Kira (Stephanie Roessler), an extreme have-not who finds herself suddenly and almost miraculously in an honored position among the haves. Crippled and useless in the common-labor village, she’s chosen to be the new weaver, the artisan whose skills can repair the pictorial image of the culture’s past and, more importantly, weave a vision of its future. But things – of course – are not what they seem, and Kira, like her fellow artist-aspirants Thomas the carver (Jeremy Howard) and Jo the singer (Steele Clevenger) must decide whether they’re going to follow their talents, or let them be used as methods of social control. An intriguing undercurrent on the role of art in society adds an extra bite to this tale of liberation and survival.

Roessler is a high-school sophomore and gives Kira a compelling and appealing intensity. The other child actors, including Peyton Symes as Kira’s sidekick Matt, also do quite well. The adults in the cast – especially Andres Alcala as the wise leader Jamison and Camille Cettina in a variety of roles, including a foot-stomping tribal bigot and an old herbalist who knows how to dye threads – give the show a solid professional grounding. Sitting among Tuesday’s busy school crowd I thought deliveries could have been a little less conversational and a little more forceful (following Cettina’s lead) to overcome the background noise and amp up the drama. But that huge collective gasp suggested that the kids were following things just fine. Marl Haack’s Mad Max-like set and Sarah Gahagan’s imaginative tribal costumes (at some junctures she has to convincingly suggest ghosts) are also satisfying.

In one sense “Gathering Blue” follows some familiar storytelling formulas. But it’s prickly, picking at the edges of ideas, peeking under the blanket of comfortability to stare at the fears and dangers underneath. It’s young. And it’s adult. And if the world it creates is exaggerated for effect, the play’s young audiences are familiar with the shape. Which might account for that sharp communal intake of air.

NOTES:

  • Oregon Children’s Theatre co-commissioned Coble’s adaptation of “Gathering Blue” with First Stage Children’s Theatre, Milwaukee. It plays twice daily on weekdays for bused-in school audiences and has open weekend performances through May 19. Ticket information here.
  • Matt Zrebski’s “Ablaze!” ends its successful run at te Brunish Theatre on Sunday, May 5. Ticket information here.
  • Ezra Weiss’s “Cinderella” garnered a rave review in The Oregonian from Marty Hughley. It continues with weekend public performances through May 24. Ticket information here.

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