Roland Shorter as Shere Khan and Justin Azevedo as Mowgli. Photo by Gary Bolen
MONTEREY Peninsula College’s Storybook Theatre program moved from the compact Studio Theatre to the spacious Morgan Stock Stage this month for a beautifully mounted and fast moving version of Kipling’s Jungle Book.
The adaptation by Monica Flory is probably closer in spirit to the original stories than Disney’s popular 1967 rendition, though it does pepper the dialogue with plenty of “okays” and has hero Mowgli “hanging out” in treetops as he goes “monkeying around” the jungle with three samples of that species. An opening night audience of parents and youngsters seemed to like it a lot.
In a major departure from the action adventure emphasis of both Kipling and Disney, this version focuses on Mowgli’s search for his true identity. Taken in as a foundling “man cub” by the benevolent Father and Mother Wolf (played with authority and warmth by Clark Brown and Evann Essert) he understands soon enough that he’s different from his adoptive parents, siblings and friends.
His encounters with mischievous monkeys (a lively, squeaky trio played by Lauren Hoelscher, Alina Flanery and Melissa Kamniker) and lessons in jungle law with the well-fed and often sleepy Baloo (the always hilarious Lane Edgington) become studies in how to accept diversity while still being yourself.
Along the way, there are fine moments of interaction with the likes of Matt Pardue, all hollow swagger and empty boasting as Tabaqui, the smarmy jackal minion and spokesman for the story’s arch tiger villain Shere Khan, played scary and ruthless by Roland Shorter. Where so much Western and Biblical literature casts the serpent as a threat if not a downright nemesis of any hero, Kipling and Monica Flory offer Mowgli a shrewd ally against Khan in the form of the wiley old snake Lady Kaa, artfully sinuous, slimy and resourceful in the hands and other body parts of Tiffany Guttierez.
The final battle against Khan becomes a rite of passage into manhood for Mowgli and a sad but necessary prelude to a return to the world of humans.
As Mowgli, Justin Azevedo, the smallest-sized performer on the Morgan Stock stage, had me wondering at first if he could dominate the action and stand up against all that surrounding animal magnetism. I needn’t have worried. His swift movements, stark white face, shock of dark hair and scarlet hunting tunic contrast sharply and sometimes disturbingly with the animals. He seems both an accepted and acceptable temporary jungle critter (his wolf howls are chilling) and yet an ultimately contrasting alien.
Director Gary Bolen, assisted by Chris Deacon, keeps the action swift and clear enough to cover three related narratives in a space of about 75 minutes, with no scene pauses or intermission.
The set by Carey Crockett is a beautiful blend of Indian woodcarving panels punctuated with bits of jungle growth, the whole shaped for action on different levels. The lighting design by Dani Maupin is swift and fluid, shifting easily from group encounters to solo and duet moments.
The production plays at MPC through March 29th.