Although Mammoth Repertory Theater’s production of The Jungle Book is promoted as “theatre for young audiences,” that shouldn’t deter anyone worried about their own enjoyment of the show when bringing the young ones along.
On Thursday morning, I found myself taking in the show with about sixty kindergarten students and their teachers, all of whom were considerably more bright and chipper than I at 8:30 a.m.
The show began with the sounds of a storm, the actors slithering and crawling onto the stage from the audience and the wings while imitating bird calls, the screeching of monkeys, and throaty growls evocative of the big cats. It’s an atmospheric opening, one that dually sets the scene and establishes the rules of the production: the audience is a part of the show while the actors themselves shift seamlessly between roles, taking on the characteristics of each jungle animal in both body and voice.
The talent for imitation with this five-person LA-based crew is impressive; the small cast size means quick changes and minimal costumes, placing the onus on the actors to make each of their characters distinct from one another – even when stationary, they take on the mannerisms of the animals they portray. It’s an exhaustive exercise to behold, a feat made even more impressive with the fact that they’re doing all this at altitude while expelling all the air in their lungs through bellows and screeches and performing multiple shows each day.
That physicality is a key component of the humor in the show. My fellow audience members were throughly entertained by sights like Baloo falling flat on his face, asleep, and the scenes where Bagheera and Baloo searched for Mowgli with comical ignorance of where the actor was sequestered.
Mowgli, the “man-cub” at the center of the tale, is the only truly constant character throughout the show. Where the other actors shift between animals, Mowgli’s shifts come as time passes within the world of the play. She starts an infant, gazing in wonder at the world she’s come to inhabit without speaking, and ends as a pre-teen, walking upright and arguing with her animal friends, all the while attempting to fit in with them by imitating their movements.
Greg Hardy’s adaptation comes from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 text, not the 1967 Disney musical version, meaning that those expecting to hear some classic Disney songs may be disappointed to find out this is strictly a play. Truth is, there’s enough range and playfulness from the actors that they don’t need song-and-dance numbers to carry the show.
Director Doug Oliphant is no stranger to Mammoth Repertory Theater, having directed, performed, and choreographed shows at the Edison including Romeo and Juliet and serving as the fight choreographer in The Fantasticks. His direction for this production definitely deserves kudos, making the most of the small space and crew to put together a veritable jungle in Mammoth Lakes.
Speaking with Oliphant after the Thursday morning debut performance, he spoke to the wide appeal of the show’s physical nature, explaining that different age groups find different aspects of the show appealing.
Is there a lesson tucked away in here for the young, impressionable theatergoers? Definitely. Mowgli struggles to find where he fits in with the jungle world, pushing back against the strict rules imposed by Bagheera and searching for belonging, not always in the right places. The monkeys may be the most cautionary of the tales, a group who take advantage of Mowgli’s desire to fit in and end up his tormenters. Their defining characteristic is a chaotic apathy towards others; they bait him into joining them with false promises and have a good deal of fun at his expense before throwing him down a well. The “all in good fun” nature of these characters reads like a warning while the dichotomy of Baloo’s easy-going attitude and Bagheera’s adherence to and respect for the rules promotes living a balance between the two extremes.
All in all, it’s a show driven by a crew of charismatic actors willing to entirely throw themselves into these roles. While it doesn’t all the punch and spectacle of a musical adaptation, there’s really no need to. The world that The Jungle Book creates is filled with fully-imagined characters and supported by a veritable playground of a set that allows them all manner of freedom in filling up the space. And just maybe, you can kick up and embrace those “bare necessities” and forget about your worry and your strife, if only for a little while.