A very frightened little boy, perhaps six or seven years of age, had to be coaxed into the auditorium shortly before a recent performance of Vital Children's Theatre's production of Shawn B. Hirabayashi's Dragon Rain was scheduled to begin. His frustrated mother explained to all within earshot that her son suffered from borderline autism, and this was his first experience with live theatre. Eventually the child was persuaded to enter the theatre, although her refused to take a seat. Deeply suspicious, he consented to watch from a safe distance while standing in the aisle.
Once the performance started, however, he made nary a sound and remained rooted to his spot, his entire attention focused on the gentle story and colorful production unfolding before him. Such is the power of live theatre in general, and Vital Children's Theatre in particular, to capture the imagination and hold it spellbound.
Adapted from a classic Japanese fairytale, Hirabayashi's script tells of Genryo, a young monk who is carried off by an evil birdlike demon while he is praying for rain to save his drought-ravaged kingdom. A magical dragon, the only one able to save the kingdom, saves Genryo, and the two of them become friends.
The story is painted in broad swashes, and Hirabayashi's treatment is not without its flaws. It is far too short (barely 35 minutes), character development and relationships are sketchy at best, and the moral, while clear, is hastily reached. But under Stephen Sunderlin's dreamlike direction, these flaws are not as readily apparent as they could be, and the production never failed to enchant. From Alf Bishai's wonderfully evocative score, to Staci Shember McLaughlin's beautifully graphic red, tan, and blue backdrop and lavishly appointed costumes, which supported the impeccably nuanced performances, the production glittered with simple, intelligent precision.
Outstanding in the cast were Andy Lee as the doggedly searching Genryo and Lisa Rock as Ryu, the magical dragon of the title. Their work together was especially wonderful, a remarkable example of collaboration that captured details not necessarily provided in the script.
Only the (uncredited) lighting failed to impress - it was warm-toned but had very little variety and did not create or sustain a mood with the same success that other elements of the production did.
But whatever the shortcomings of the piece, Dragon Rain can still be counted as another success for Vital Children's Theatre. The gentle, inviting warmth of the production subtly but surely enveloped and held the attention of young, old, and in-between alike, and proved, once again, that by treating its primary audience with respect, this company absolutely knows what is doing in the often abrasive, loud, and over-wrought world of children's theatre.
(Also featuring: Marco Jo Clate, David D. Mitchell, and David Shih)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita