â€œI wanted to produce James and the Giant Peach because it is a story of a little boy overcoming loneliness. It is about unexpected tragedy and how we survive those kinds of tragedies. These are themes that any age can relate to,â€ says Rose of Athens Theatre Director Lisa Cesnik Ferguson. Roald Dahlâ€™s peculiar novel, on which Richard R. Georgeâ€™s adaptation is based, tells the triumphs of a lonely orphaned boy who, after spilling a bag of magic, finds himself voyaging trans-Atlantic inside of a giant peach suspended by a flock of seagulls, leaving his grim past far behind and finally finding true friendship in a group of large, talking bugs.
In the first act, James (played by Jack McCoy and Nathan Lee on different nights) takes the stage to explain how he has come to live with his two terrible aunts after his parents were randomly killed by a rampaging rhinoceros. He stands before a grand backdrop of swirling turquoise and peach clouds rising above a row of melon- and tangerine-tinted hibiscuses hand-painted by scenic artist Emily Hogan. In alarming contrast sits a very angular and jarring structure with thorny black vines crawling up its sides: the bleak dwelling in which James must reside.
â€œWe wanted to make sure that we had a peach hue to the set in every aspect but the auntsâ€™ house, which would be grey. I wanted it to be magical and visually arresting. I wanted it to leave room for the imagination to play a large part in the visuals,â€ explains Ferguson. Witnessing the dreary hopelessness of Jamesâ€™ situation makes watching him escape into the colorful world beyond even more rewarding.
While the play is largely targeted towards childrenâ€”utilizing the aisles as additional performance space to engage audience members directlyâ€”adults will likely find humor in the two tyrannical aunts. After a period of tormenting James and breaking out into shrill songs, Spiker, a vain and merciless mess on high heels, and Sponge, her voluptuous (read: morbidly obese) and greedy sister, ultimately get whatâ€™s coming to them.
After the aunts send James to collect trash that roadside tourists have left behind on the site of the mysteriously enormous peach growing in their tree, he stumbles into a passageway that leads straight through to the pit. The giant peach finally makes its debut onstage as a large fruit-shaped frame with a shimmering, iridescent fabric screen representing the center space. Here, James encounters the group of giant insects that soon will become his new comrades.
Surely, finding pre-made insect costumes wouldnâ€™t have been an impossible task for costume designer Tessa Turk Baxter, yet she opted for a more organic approach to styling the actors. By selecting articles of clothing and accessories that are largely common to everyday people (minus the antennae and extra appendages, that is), Baxter is able to humanize Jamesâ€™ creepy-crawly companions into a cohort of respectable friends.
Most notably, every characterâ€™s attire can be interpreted as a significant reflection or extension of his or her personality. Friendly and well-mannered Ladybug appears put together in her polka-dotted red dress, black evening gloves, pearl necklace and fluttering feather eyelashes, and Spider, lively despite being fundamentally misunderstood, is enigmatic in her glittering black drape. Perpetually worried Earthworm slinks around in all beige with sunglasses signifying blindness, and Grasshopper, in his cowboy boots and flannel, seems to have jumped onstage straight from a country field. The â€œpestâ€ of the gang, Centipede, suitably sports a leather jacket, blue jeans and a pair of Chuck Taylors. Even James, in his understated match of plain brown shorts and a slightly frayed button-down shirt, couldnâ€™t have been more appropriately dressed considering his disadvantaged childhood.
Local musician Marty Winkler, who has worked on past Rose of Athens productions including Alice in Wonderland, Charlotteâ€™s Web and Winnie the Pooh, composed the musical score for James and the Giant Peach and can be heard not only accompanying the actors live on vocals and synthesizer during songs, but also creating miscellaneous sounds such as those of seagulls and sharks. The odd plot and quirky style of Dahlâ€™s writing lent itself well to the creation of the showâ€™s whimsical songs.
The play will have been performed about a dozen times for school field-trips by the time the weekend rolls around, guaranteeing that the cast will be in tip-top shape for the public performances on Friday, Mar. 9 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Mar. 10 at 2 & 7 p.m. at the Seney-Stovall Chapel. For tickets, call the Rose of Athens box office at (706) 340-9181 or visit www.roseofathens.org.
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