In children's theater, as in any performance medium, there are many ways to go about staging or adapting a classic story. With Beatrix Potter's "Tale of Peter Rabbit," director Nancy Lohman Staub has opted for the distressingly literal. Staub's version may encompass choreography and modern music, but it's little more than a dressed-up reading of the story. The original tale, in all its innocence and naive charm, serves as a straitjacket rather than as an inspiration.
The 40-minute production, part of the Kennedy Center's Imagination Celebration, follows a formula: After one of Potter's original illustrations is projected at the rear of the stage, a narrator (Robin Deck, charmingly impersonating Potter) recites the text, which is then acted out by a troupe of dancers under the direction of Muna Tseng, who also plays the title role. The many illustrations and brief recitations lead to an unwieldly series of too-rapid blackouts, with such unexciting tableaux as "First he ate some lettuce and some french beans and then he ate some radishes." With the only drama coming from Peter's encounter in the garden with the farmer, it's a bit like listening to a long paragraph with only one verb.
The production's charms are limited to Carr Garnett's authentic-looking rabbit costumes (a perfect match for the illustrations and the only area where literalness works) and a 12-foot-high Farmer McGregor puppet. When that imposing figure is on the Terrace Theater stage, it establishes not only some welcome tension but also a scale that makes Peter seem small and endangered. There are also some nice looming shadows, an original touch that suggests a chance taken rather than a tone matched.
However, Tseng's choreography is as simplistic and obvious as Luigi Zaninelli's score is predictable.
"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" will be repeated today at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and tomorrow at 2 p.m.