British writer Rudyard Kipling is rightly criticized these days for the racially tinged, imperialist messages of much of his work. That doesn’t mean, however, that some of his writing can’t be reinterpreted with positive messages for a new generation.
Such is the case with Zach Theatre’s latest production for children and families, “Jungalbook.” Adapted by Edward Mast from Kipling’s stories, the play follows the familiar tale of a human child raised in the jungle by friendly animals while fighting off fierce predators.
In this production, though, that child is not a boy named Mowgli but instead a girl known only as Humancub. What ensues is less a picaresque story of the child’s encounters with various animals than a focused narrative about her growing sense of empowerment and education about what makes societies thrive.
All of the above, though, is a very heady reading of what is essentially a fun jungle adventure story for children. And on that level, “Jungalbook” is a huge success.
Even before the play begins, the design team steals the show, turning Zach’s Kleberg Stage into a full-on jungle. The immersive environmental creations by set/prop/projection designer Scott Groh work in perfect tandem with Austin Brown’s lighting and Allen Robertson’s bed of sound (and, later, music) to create a fully realized, 360-degree junglescape.
Director Nat Miller has taken this amazing design work and used it to create clever staging that takes advantage of the entire theater, with surprising entrances, clever use of puppetry and shadow play, and plenty of theatrical magic to amaze younger audiences (and amuse their older friends and family). His cast of both adult professionals and young members of Zach Academy seems to have a full awareness of the space, using it to craft performances designed to speak directly to the children in the audience.
Rather than attempting to completely emulate the animals that they play, for the most part the cast focuses on the emotional truth of these characters, allowing Jamiee Garner’s simple but expressive costuming to highlight the animalistic features. As the friendly, authoritative Baloo the Bear, for example, John Christopher is full of bombast and mirth (rather than bearlike growling and grouchiness), while Amber Quick’s Sherakhan the Tiger is full of pride and sudden viciousness that is quite catlike.
The heart of Zach’s production of “Jungalbook,” though, is the message that it teaches children through the antics of these enjoyable characters — rules and laws exist in society to protect the weak from being at the mercy of the strong, and it’s vital that we all remember we are of “one blood” if we want to see any kind of future in our own society. This is, more than ever, a potent and timely message, and one that “Jungalbook” expresses eloquently and with quite a bit of charm.