Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009

Every year I concoct a marathon Saturday of theatre in Lenox. This enables me to see the two halves of Shakespeare & Company’s free offering on the tented Rose Footprint stage, the one-woman show across the street at Ventfort Hall, and something else in the evening. This year the line-up was: Toad of Toad Hall, Paris 1890, Unlaced, and Hamlet. The comments here will be focused on Toad.... You can click on the links above to read my reviews of the other two productions.

About Toad... I have good news and bad news. The Good News: It is a pleasant piece of children’s theatre. The Bad News: That’s all it is.

In the past, the family-friendly shows on the Rose Footprint have been exactly that – FAMILY friendly. The whole family could go and have fun together. There were laughs for all, and usually a couple of buxom wenches and studly guys in tights into the bargain. On two occasions I ranked the Rose Footprint shows as among the very best of the summer season – not this year.

If I still had young children I suppose I would have considered Toad... a perfectly pleasant diversion for them. The children in the audiences I attended with seemed pleased with the proceedings. So if you have a child between the ages of 4-10, particularly if they are familiar with and fans of Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows this production is a good choice. Of course you could also take them to see the BTF Plays production of The Wind in the Willows at the Berkshire Museum, but that costs money and Toad... is free.

Just think, if the BTF and Shakespeare & Company people had just TALKED to each other (or texted, tweeted, blogged, etc.) while planning their seasons, they could have offered completely different children’s shows, instead of two variations on the same original (the BTF is presenting a new adaptation by E. Gray Simons while Shakespeare & Company is using A.A. Milne’s 1929 version), and captured larger audiences.

My greatest fear attending Toad... was actually not that I would be bored, but that I would be appalled. I had been pretty darned aghast by director Irina Brook’s take on The Canterville Ghost last fall, and I was cringing to think what she would do to my beloved Wind in the Willows critters. (I have a special affinity for Mole and Paul D’Agostino pleased me very much.) But Brook’s meddling with Grahame and Milne was gentle and inoffensive to the point of blandness. While she has cut Milne’s script, the chunks she has retained are not greatly altered, and the new bits are more along the lines of an update than a rewrite.

So what is left is pretty much the familiar gentle tale of the silly, genial, and self-important Mister Toad (the winning and funny Danny Kurtz) and his motorcars (Poop! Poop!) and how his loyal friends Ratty (Jennie Burkhard Jadow), Mole (D’Agostino), and Badger (the very badger-like Josie Wilson) get him out of various scrapes. The Wild Wooders have been turned into Mean Girl Weasels (blonde and bouncy Kaitlin Henderson, Kelley Johnston, and the versatile Meg O’Connor), which works well. Danny Coates-Fink and Adam Stoner round out the cast in a variety of roles. A couple of Milne’s songs/poems have been set to rap beats, which is fun. And Bill Barclay has written a dorky little closing number about how its better to be friends than to be enemies – duh! I refused to sing along and I usually love to do that.

Jim Day has designed really nice costumes that combine with the actors’ physical impression to render each animal recognizable in fun ways. Toad has swampy green legs and a tailcoat that bounces delightfully when he hops. Badger is all black and white stripes while Mole is, well, mole-like.

I found the casting of Jadow as Ratty, and the costume Day provided for her, to be the least successful aspects of the production. It wasn’t that she was a woman playing a male role – Wilson was doing that to good effect – it was that she was the wrong woman playing a character I barely recognized as the sensible Ratty.

(Speaking of water rats, there is a sleek and handsome pair living in the pond in front of the Bernstein Theatre. They entertained me during the intermission for Pinter’s Mirror the other week.)

As is usual for Rose Footprint entertainments, Toad... is presented in two parts. If you want to see both in one day you have to come on a Saturday and find other activities to occupy you between 1:30 pm, when Part A ends, and 5:30 pm, when Part B begins. There is no dearth of things to do in central Berkshire County on a warm summer’s day, but I still wish there was one opportunity to come and see both parts back to back, with a healthy intermission in which the children could run about on Shakespeare & Company’s beautiful grounds.

But unlike other years when Part B began with some kind of synopsis of Part A, and Part A really left you jonesing for more, the only attempt at linking the two halves this year is a synopsis of Part A in the program. Presumably this is for people who attend only Part B, but there is NO attempt to re-introduce the characters at the start of Part B. So if you haven’t seen Part A you literally won’t know who’s who on stage. Also, why is there no synopsis of Part B for people who can only see Part A? Is Part B that unimportant? Is this a ruse to force people to return? To me the whole thing just seemed sloppily planned.

After I came up the hill after seeing Part B of Toad... I happened upon the Shakespeare & Company Prelude production Omelet: Prince of Breakfast. Billed as “A healthy and nutritious improvement on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’” created by the cast – Poornima Kirby, Aaron Sharff, Michael Dix Thomas – and directed by Kelly Galvin and Enrico Spada. It lasted 15-minutes and was just a heapin’ helpin’ of silly, high-energy fun. I turned to my companion and said, “That’s the level of energy and entertainment you used to get on the Rose Footprint.”

If you are looking for entertainment for your young children “Toad of Toad Hall” is innocuous and free. If it encourages your children to read “The Wind in the Willows,” so much the better. If you are looking for laugh-a-minute family fun, keep looking. And if you find it, let me know.

The Shakespeare and Company production of Toad of Toad Hall is performed through August 29 on the outdoor, tented Rose Footprint Stage on the Shakespeare & Company campus, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. Toad of Toad Hall plays in two parts, performed on alternate days. Parts A and B both play on Saturdays. Each part runs an hour with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Admission is free but reservations and tickets are required.

For a complete listing of productions and schedules please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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