Theater Review

In the Animal Kingdom, Classika Rules for Kids

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By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 24, 2008

"The Lion and the Mouse" borrows elements of the familiar Aesop's fable and blends it with African drumming and stylized movement in the current production from Synetic Theater's Classika Family Shows. (That seems to be the name the old Classika Theatre, which merged with Synetic Theater some time ago, is using.) It's a delightful, colorful romp as the King of the Jungle learns to appreciate the other denizens of his kingdom.

The old tale was adapted by Synetic director Nicholas Allen, who placed it in Africa because he believes that the story of the lion with a thorn in his paw who was helped by a mouse existed long before Aesop packaged it for children. And he said he liked the possibility of borrowing African storytelling techniques to explore the fable's themes. The result is an entertaining blend of comedy, music and lessons to be learned. Allen has also made the show interactive, drawing the kids (age 4 and up) in the audience into the action.

A key to the show's success is the vibrant performance of Jamie Gray Hyder as Lion. Slender and husky-voiced, she is a captivating king, full of bluster but not much bite. Hyder's lithe movements, a scaled-down version of the unique mixture of styles for which Synetic Theater is enjoying a burgeoning reputation, shows us a lion who likes to think of himself as ferocious. However, her animated facial expressions, viewed through cleverly designed makeup (no credit listed), draw the children to her and reveal this lion as an old softy.

Hyder is backed up by Kathleen Murphy as Monkey, Riley Koren as Hyena and Lakeisha Raquel Harrison as Zebra. Those creatures are annoyed that Lion only wants to sing and dance the Lion Song and ignores their songs. And they are not happy that he takes all the best food for himself. So they conspire to get Lion to step on a thorn, which will hobble him and weaken his rule over them.

Where's the mouse, you ask? Well, the children in the audience act as the mouse, collectively, and help direct the action by answering questions posed by the characters. (Allen's adaptation doesn't follow the fable's story line all that closely, but that's really beside the point.)

The four actors are in a constant swirl of movement in Jan Forbes's jungle setting. Each projects substantial personality, aided by the nicely detailed and whimsical costumes from Evgenia Salazar.

The cast is credited with developing the dynamic, percussion-based music. They vigorously beat on drums, sticks, buckets and water cooler bottles (all colorfully disguised) with infectious, insinuating rhythms, as Allen weaves the music into the storytelling.

It's quite entertaining for parents and children, as each of the actors displays considerable skill drumming either in unison or in counterpoint to the others. All that energy emanating from Classika's small stage helps to hold the attention of the young ones, too.

By the end of the adventure, which lasts less than an hour, the curmudgeonly Lion learns to appreciate the needs of others and develops considerable empathy. Nothing like a sharp pain in the foot to clear away the cobwebs of self-involvement.

As is the case with the best of Classika's work, this show projects just the right energy level and lasts just the right amount of time to keep the little ones thoroughly engaged.

"The Lion and the Mouse" continues through Aug. 17 as Synetic Theater presents a Classika Family Show. Classika Theatre is at 4041 Campbell Ave. in the Shirlington section of Arlington. Showtime Saturdays and Sundays is 12:30 p.m. For tickets, call 703-824-6200 or visit www.classika.org.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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