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It’s got “stories” in the title and “Salman Rushdie” above that, and there’s a bright swirl of colors on the floor of the H Street Playhouse, so you know ahead of time this is going to be a fantastical voyage—and that’s before the lights go down and the music comes up and the chorus starts talking about the city where Haroun and the Sea of Stories gets its start, “a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.” And just like that you’re snagged, seduced by that irresistibly implausible storyteller’s trick, which invites you with a mere phrase into a world that can’t possibly exist: You go happily, content to follow the current even when it seems to be moving at little more than a Sargasso drift.
Rushdie’s prose has always been dreamily baroque, his narratives always haunted by myth and by parable, so even without a backstory there would be a pleasing opulence to Haroun, a children’s novel published back in 1990. Listen closer, though—remember that those were the hidey-hole days, the Satanic Verses era, and remember that you’ve heard somewhere that Haroun, with its archetypes and its esoterica and its frightening absolutes, was Rushdie’s effort to explain fundamentalism and fatwa to his young son. The plot, much simplified, involves a storyteller whose inspiration has dried up and the child who, after a journey to the mythical Sea of Stories and a battle against the Prince of Silence, restores the gift. Instantly Haroun becomes more than just a giddily inspired collection of linguistic tricks and pop-culture jokes (though let’s not discount the shout-outs to Mott the Hoople and “I Am the Walrus”): The book, like this wonderfully textured stage adaptation by Tim Supple and David Tushingham, takes on a kind of sobering grandeur, a sense of struggle endured and quest undertaken and tragedy barely averted. It makes for a rich, sad, sweet time in the theater, even when everything’s not quite working.
And there are those moments, it must be noted: Theater Alliance’s staging can be kinetic, and it meets Rushdie’s kiddie epic with a fine sense of wonder and an appetizing tinge of rue, but at slightly more than two-and-a-half hours, it’s long for the little ones—and to the average adult attention span, its pace will seem a little lackadaisical here and there. That’s mostly because director-choreographer Kelly Parsley wants to explore the territories and techniques of visual theater as much as he wants to indulge antsy audiences with swift storytelling: Haroun’s father (Ian LeValley) weaves stories with his fingers; a trek through a no-man’s land and a flight on bird-back to Earth’s uncharted second moon (it’s that kind of fable) get danced and tumbled and leapt, and, after a while, you wish every expressive little incident had as much flash and magic as the mad down-the-mountain bus ride Parsley choreographs so triumphantly in the early going. His 12-person cast somehow multiplies itself until it seems as if half the population of Delhi, complete with caged canaries and an ill-behaved mongoose, has wedged itself into that bus, and it’s a noisy, jostly riot. Alas, Parsley’s instincts about which passages to amplify with movement aren’t always as true, and not all of the cast members have the individual panache they demonstrate in ensemble.
Anu Yadav makes an appealingly intelligent Haroun, though the actor’s obvious smarts sometimes get in the way of the character’s emotional life; lines come tumbling out of her, more thought than felt sometimes, which saps certain moments of the urgency that might have made them combust. Still, there’s nicely haunted work from LeValley as the dumbstruck story-spinner whose creative crisis gets sparked when his neglected wife (Erica Chamblee) leaves him for a no-nonsense clerk with no time for the fanciful (Danny Ladmirault, who’ll later play the Prince of Silence, hint-hint).
Among the ensemble, Jonathon Church has some nicely agile business as the bad guy’s shadow (it’s that kind of fable, too), and later he gets to wear a large egg on his head as one of the attendants of I.M.D. Walrus (Scott McCormick), comptroller of the waterworks that, in a Process Too Complicated to Explain, connects Haroun’s father to the Sea of Stories; Maggie Glauber plays Iff the Water Genie as an agreeably grumpy redneck of a plumber; and Carlos Bustamante somehow makes a speed-crazed mechanical bird one of the most satisfyingly human characters in the show. And Chamblee gets a sweet, solid solo just before the show’s satisfying happy ending—another moment of movement-based theater that pays off nicely.
Now, if only they could make that happy ending arrive a little faster.
A stranger—followed closely by a strangerer—calls at the Wisconsin farmhouse where God of Hell’s Frank (Colby Codding) and Emma (Adrienne Nelson) are feebly fighting the good fight against the agribusinesses that make Frank’s beloved heifers such a pointless proposition. The stranger—actually an old friend Frank’s never mentioned and Emma’s never met—turns out to be on the run from a secret government installation. And he shoots sparks whenever anyone touches him.
The strangerer, a wide-smiling guy named Welch who’s supposedly selling patriotic paraphernalia door-to-door, has in fact come to contain the situation, quash the leaks, stifle any dissent—and because he’s the heavy hand in Sam Shepard’s broad satire on the with-us-or-against-us mind-set currently steering our fair republic, he packs torture implements among the flag-plastered tchotchkes in his attaché. Lock and load your Coulterisms and Let’s Roll!™, fellow patriots, ’cause “things have been set in motion,” and “we’re dealing with a ruthless, diabolical, treacherous, despicable force,” and “there’s no more thinking to do.”
God bless America’s prairie poet for going at the Bush administration with both barrels, and God bless Didactic Theatre Company for making sure D.C. audiences get to hear the fusillade—a fine fit for this curiously named troupe, if ever there were one. Never mind that it’s a little tardy: Shepard wrote this thoroughly unsubtle takedown back before the 2004 elections, hoping to stir up a little stink about fearmongering and Abu Ghraib and the perils of the Patriot Act, and the damn thing got staged in London, for heaven’s sake, four months before anyone in D.C. got around to producing it.
Better late than never, though, and better this enthusiastically half-cooked production than none at all. H. Lee Gable directs with a certain bloodthirsty glint in his eye, and Nelson, particularly, comes closest to creating a sense of what’s at stake for Shepard: Quiet and worried and more than a little uncertain about what’s right and what’s to be afraid of, she stands in nicely for the decent folk who get swept up in the at-any-cost frenzy only to discover they’ve let themselves be hustled too far, too fast.
Codding makes a nice lunkish foil as her farmer husband (whose Holsteins, in case you were wondering, turn out to be a metaphor for your civil liberties: Yes, it’s a broooooad satire, indeedy), and Christopher Carroll twitches and sparks amusingly enough as the man who’s seen too much.
If only there were a little more Jack Nicholson and a little less Joan Crawford in Matt Howe’s leering asides about “high-priority tactics” and “natural loyalties,” maybe his creepy-cheery Welch would seem more of a menace to a free society. As things stand, though, the you-can’t-handle-the-truth speech that’s Welch’s answer to the heartlanders’ protests doesn’t carry the sobering whiff of real-world wrongheadedness—and without it, he’s nowhere near as scary as the ideologues who inspired him. CP