Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Theatre review: White Fang

When the Park announced its winter season, an adaptation of White Fang in the studio space seemed easy to skip until I noticed it was written and directed by Jethro Compton – after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance became a surprise favourite of mine a few years ago, another trip to the 19th century North American frontiers suddenly seemed more appealing. This is described as “inspired by” rather than “adapted from” Jack London’s novel, and although I haven’t read it a look at the Wikipedia page suggests that’s fair, the story bears little resemblance beyond the setting – Canada’s Yukon Territory during the Gold Rush – and some of the characters. Lyzbet Scott (Mariska Ariya) is a young Native American girl whose entire tribe was massacred in a dispute with wolf hunters when she was a child; one of the hunters, Weedon Scott (Robert G. Slade,) rescued her and adopted her as his granddaughter.

Some years later he also rescues a companion for her, an orphaned wolf cub she names White Fang (principally puppeteered by Danny Mahoney) in her tribe’s language, and which she attempts to raise as a pet.

The wolf grows up fiercely loyal to Lyzbet but still dangerous to anyone else. The only other person who can tame White Fang is Curly (Bebe Sanders,) a white girl who takes an interest in both girl and wolf, and despite Lyzbet’s resistance ends up becoming an invaluable friend as the world she’s grown up in starts to change. Taking advantage of Weedon’s wish that his granddaughter get an education, the sinister Beauty Smith (Paul Albertson) offers to buy his land so he can prospect on it. When Lyzbet objects to the desecration of her ancestors’ land, Weedon refuses the offer with tragic consequences.

In fact tragedy follows almost every character in a play that despite its puppets, snow and adventures isn’t really a seasonal family offering – I’d recommend taking that 12+ audience guidance seriously as this is very much a play about death and loss, including the threat of Lyzbet losing her identity: Quite apart from the stories of neglect that the characters have heard about it, it seems a given that the school she’s to be sent to is designed to wipe out any part of her native heritage that she still remembers. Despite the tendency towards bleakness this is still a show that maintains a sense of wonder, largely through atmosphere and the way the cast (completed by Jonathan Mathews as the loyal but ineffectual Tom) breathe life into a very specific location that doesn’t often appear on stage.

I did have a few niggles with the production; the songs during scene changes just feel like they’re slowing them down, and though the accents are consistent, they sounded very Southern – I wasn’t expecting everyone to be saying “aboot” through a mouthful of bacon but what we did get didn’t quite ring right to me. Still, it’s only niggles in a show that, while it didn’t match up for me to Compton’s last foray into Westerns, proves another successful attempt at a genre not often seen on stage. The understated lesbian plot thread is another element unlikely to have come straight out of a 1906 novel but feels fitting in a story about a girl finding out where she wants her life to take her outside of the options she’s always been presented with.

And Eric Davis’ puppet design manages to create a War Horse effect on a fraction of the budget, with the same idea of non-naturalistic designs brought to life by movement. The gasps of concern when the puppet is brought onstage without anyone to animate it are a great example of theatre’s highly effective simplicity, in a show that draws you in with its intimate evocation of an epic scale.

White Fang by Jethro Compton, inspired by the novel by Jack London, is booking until the 13th of January at Park Theatre 90.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Jethro Compton.

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