Surprisingly subtle and occasionally quite serious, Adventure Theatre MTC’s “The Jungle Book” proved pleasurably hypnotic for tots and even toddlers at a recent performance. The lack of fidgets and whispers indicated how well the colorful and sophisticated hour-long show — full of dancelike movement, though it’s not a musical — was getting across.
Director Shirley Serotsky has used a 2008 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories by Tracey Power, which debuted in Montreal. The piece is recommended for kids age 4 and older here, though it’s a good bet that 3-year-olds could get a lot out of it, too.
Adventure’s staging has nary a whiff of the racial stereotyping attributed to the 1967 Disney movie musical or the British imperial attitudes reflected in Kipling’s late 19th-century writing. Instead, thanks to an able and ethnically diverse cast, Power’s script, Serotsky’s deft touch and Pei Lee’s handsome, human-animal hybrid costumes, this “Jungle Book” becomes a lesson in acceptance. Adults will catch hints of the grimmer consequences of pitting one’s own “kind” against the “other,” but these are between the lines only.
Don’t assume from the aforementioned themes that the show isn’t entertaining and funny — it is. But it is more solemn in spots than you might expect of a bauble geared toward preschoolers.
As kids and parents enter Adventure’s Glen Echo Park storefront theater, they see a large multicolored wooden circus wagon at the center of the stage. Its license plate reads “R.K. 1893-94,” a reference to Kipling and the first publication of his “Jungle Book” stories. The driver sits down outside his wagon, which refuses to start, and begins to read “The Jungle Book.” A gang of monkeys grabs the book and takes over as he shrugs and exits.
The monkeys, in beige pants, long tails, hooded aqua tops, crocheted pink collars and sticky-outy ears, open up the wagon. Like a pop-up storybook, its sides become a painted palm-tree jungle, its interior floor a stage. Baloo the friendly bear (James J. Johnson), with a furry brown belly and spherical furry ears, steps out and chants the law of the jungle: “Kill only for food and survival . . . and never kill Man.”
Other denizens appear — Akela (Nadia Mahdi), leader of the elite wolf pack, and Bagheera (Shravan Amin), Baloo’s panther pal, in handsome orange and black. Bagheera looks as much like an Indian aristocrat as he does an elite cat, with a long tail and little tufts of fur on his hat as the only giveaways. All of Lee’s costumes tease out animal characteristics in this way. The discovery of an abandoned baby — a “man cub” — has the animals all abuzz. Baloo longs to raise the baby, dubbed Mowgli, and played at first by a sweet puppet (the bright-hued puppets and other props are by Andrea “Dre” Moore).
Tabaqui (Shanta Parasuraman), a jackal and a lackey to the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Andrew Ferlo), warns that the tiger will eat the little human. Baloo and Bagheera get permission from the wolves to raise and teach Mowgli anyway, and they do. The scene shifts to Mowgli as a slender, agile teen (now played by Rafael Sebastian), shirtless and cavorting in baggy red pants.
Mowgli knows he’s human but considers himself a wolf-pack member and a loyal citizen of the jungle. He falls into adventures that begin when he wanders off with the monkeys, although Baloo and Bagheera have passed on to him the prejudice that monkeys are “lawless” and “not nice.” Eventually, Mowgli must face and defeat Shere Khan, who warns him, “In my bones, I hate you.” Various prejudices and the overcoming of them give the show its arc.
The concepts of hatred, violence, love and family are quite nuanced, even for adults, in this “Jungle Book.” Yet the little ones seemed to tune right in, not only to the awesomeness of Shere Khan’s roar but to Mowgli’s bifurcated sense of belonging and the monkeys’ yearning for respect.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
based on the fables collected by Rudyard Kipling, adapted by Tracey Power. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Choreography/movement, Chitra Kalyandurg; movement, Mark Jaster; set design, Robbie Hayes; lighting, Brian S. Allard; sound, Christopher Baine. Tickets $19. One hour. Presented through May 30 by Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd, Glen Echo, MD. Call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.