The Coterie Theatre’s latest (and last) dip into the Little House on the Prairie canon takes a different tack from its previous approach, which involved adaptations of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas is based on the author’s life, as if the books themselves had been scraped clean of everything usable. The cow apparently stopped giving milk, so it was time for something fresh and pasteurized.
Press materials say the show is set during “their poorest winter ever” in Burr Oak, Iowa, where the Ingalls family is living and working in a hotel. Perhaps to indicate poverty, the show’s director, Scot Copeland, errs on the side of stark minimalism. There’s no set except a plank floor and just a few props, such as a bucket and a tea set. Actions are largely pantomimed. Though the old hotel might have been architecturally interesting — haunted, even — there is never a sense of the place.
The cast might as well be inside the Arctic Circle, and though the experiment might work for something Brechtian, it makes the Coterie’s young audience awfully restless.
Aneliese Krull helps a lot to keep the show peppy. She’s the spunkiest Laura in memory and gets inside the character’s scruffy, tomboyish attitude. The family’s nine-month-old baby dies as the show opens, and Laura feels neglected because of her mother’s grief. Ma (Jeanne Averill) and Pa (Ric Averill) ignore her even more once they’re employed at the hotel. The fact that this bothers the intensely independent Laura seems odd, especially given that her sisters Mary (Catherine Queen) and Carrie (Adria Rook) appear to be perfectly content.
About half an hour in, the family faces a strange request. With her grown children gone, the wealthy Mrs. Starr (Debra Bluford) is feeling bereft as well and asks if Mrs. Ingalls can spare Laura for a few visits. The woman goes overboard, though, and later inquires whether the Ingalls can bear to part with Laura — as in, let Mrs. Starr adopt her outright. Though Laura overhears some of this offer and misinterprets what she doesn’t hear, there’s never a Sophie’s Choice moment; no one believes the Ingalls would give up a child after having lost one earlier. Mrs. Starr is a bit embarrassed but continues to be generous as Christmas approaches.
At least parts of David Kiehl’s sound design, like a horse’s neigh and an old clock’s chime, give the setting some needed life, and Greg Benkovich and Lisa Harper’s costumes seem true to the period. Art Kent’s lighting design is mostly serviceable and subtle, except when characters look through windows — then they get a bright spotlight, as if the sun were always blinding.
After seven seasons, the Coterie is retiring the Wilder series for new territory. Ma Ingalls says upon inspection of the hotel, “It’s a tavern! What kind of place is that for our girls?” This gave me the giggles when I imagined how Late Night Theatre could pick up the story — or even stage this one. With Philip blue owl Hooser as bun-and-shawl-wearing Ma and Ron Megee with pigtails and knee socks as little Laura, there could be life in the old girl yet.
Postscript: A little nosh now and then never hurt portly Take Me Out author Richard Greenberg. So maybe the prospect of playwriting and potluck will turn a few untested scripts into full-blown productions after one of CrossCurrents’ Five and Dime Potluck Sundays. (The next dinner is December 15.) “Though they are cold readings, it’s a chance to hear them out loud,” says CrossCurrents President Bill Clause.
The potlucks are part of the Just Off Broadway Theatre Association’s December Playwrights Festival, a mix of theater, poetry and film that includes some free events. The one staged production is Kato McNickle’s To Die for Want of Lobster, winner of the Gorilla Theatre’s 2001 playwriting competition. It opens December 19.
Submissions to CrossCurrents’ competition have been overwhelming. “We put a couple of notices on the Internet and ended up getting 500 scripts from virtually all over the world,” Clause says. “We’ve narrowed it down to fifty or so that are worth doing. It will be a real chore.” To lessen the burden, folks will gather at the home of Harold and Pat Keairnes and dig into assorted dishes and scripts.
“We’re looking for actors, directors and hangers-on, [but] all opinions are welcome,” Clause says. “It’s very informal and inclusive, and none of us consider ourselves jaded experts on this stuff. We don’t agree with each other, so we don’t expect to agree with outsiders.” For more information — but more important, to coordinate your hot dish — call the Keairnes at 816-361-6757.
Other creative ideas are helping not-for-profits get through these tough economic times.
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Sidonie Garrett, reports that a collaboration with Price Chopper may prove lucrative. Until May 31, 2003, the grocery chain will allow customers to earmark 1 percent of their purchase amounts for a specific charity. Shakespeare fans must first register their designation. More information is available online at mypricechopper.com or by calling the festival’s office at 816-531-7728.
Meanwhile, the Gorilla Theatre’s Feed the Gorilla is a $10-a-month membership drive that rewards patrons with Gorilla merchandise and tickets to shows such as the current production, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. “Our goal is to simply find a hundred members … in a way that’s easily affordable,” says Artistic Director David Luby. “If we don’t get fed, we’ll become extinct.” Interested parties can learn more at gorillatheatre.org.