Our performance culture is packed with works fashioned from children's stories, often featuring prominent roles for little ones. Cuteness can be a selling factor for some -- particularly commercial -- productions (the popularity of giving the audience something to coo over is memorably lambasted in John Madden's 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love, with the running joke about putting on plays involving "a pirate king, love triumphant, and a bit with a dog"). But childhood innocence can also be distracting. Where kids' stories and characters are treated in less benign, allegorical terms -- when a magical fairy tale peopled with young characters, for instance, is meant to operate as more than mere entertainment -- directors should think carefully about the function of, and how to work with, child actors.
In the style of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, Berkeley Rep's production of two one-act operas, Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar, sugarcoats savage criticisms of society with fun, family-friendly stories. Featuring a cast of adults and around 30 children, Brundibar follows the fortunes of a penniless brother and sister as they try to scrape together enough money to buy milk for their bedridden mother. When the bullying organ grinder, Brundibar, threatens to thwart their plans, the siblings receive help from local kids and animals. Comedy on the Bridge, meanwhile, is an absurd story about a collection of townspeople left stranded on a bridge during wartime owing to some bureaucratic error. Bombs drop and gunfire rains down, but the entrapped civilians are more concerned about petty grievances than their personal safety and the future of their town.
Conceived in Czechoslovakia during World War II -- Brundibar by composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, and Comedy on the Bridge by composer Bohuslav Martinu and librettist Václav Kliment Klicpera -- the operas are political allegories masquerading as innocent fun. For children's author Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), who, together with playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), developed designs and a new libretto for this double production, the stories say something about abuses of power -- a theme as potent in the 1940s as it is today. As Sendak put it in a recent interview with Bill Moyers, "You can't get rid of evil ... all the idiots that keep coming into the world and wrecking people's lives."
In order to succeed, then, in conveying their hard-hitting messages, the operas must balance the magic of children's storytelling with a glimpse into the darkness that lurks beneath. Sendak's designs (created with Kris Stone) do much to set up this tension. The stage looks like a wondrous, giant picture book, with its elaborate "hand-drawn" townscapes featuring rickety roofs and lampposts touched by golden light. The tone of the visuals is, like the best fairy tales, both playful and sinister. In Comedy on the Bridge, the flimsiness of the two-dimensional set is offset by the use of three-dimensional barriers on either side of the bridge covered in real-looking barbed wire. In Brundibar, the man in the moon wears a smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's, and images of children riding on giant blackbirds' backs are at once otherworldly and ominous.
Kushner's lyrics function in a similar way, as do some of the adult performances. Witty but never schmaltzy, the text is packed with lacerating irony, particularly in Comedy on the Bridge. The refrain "Hold it!," coming from two hairsplitting sentries posted at either end of the bridge, and lines like "Times like these make refugees" compensate for Martinu's less than captivating musical score. On the acting front, balancing a boyish face and sugary smiles with a Hitler-esque mustache and sudden bouts of childish rage, Euan Morton's fiendish Brundibar is the stuff of bad dreams.
So where do children fit into Sendak and Kushner's goofy, Nutcracker-ish allegories? It's refreshing to see how the production's young actors help emphasize the tension between the fairy-tale surface and the murky depths. In Comedy on the Bridge, for instance, the kids provide one of the opera's biggest ironies. Though visually beautiful, full of funny lines, and based on an interesting premise, the piece flags owing to poor vocal technique from some of the adult cast members and to the repetitive, stalled action. But when a few junior actors suddenly show up under the bridge (dressed in Robin I. Shane's marvelously silly fish costumes) just as one of the civilians, heartbroken by his girlfriend's infidelity, threatens to throw himself into the river, the story comes to life. Standing with their fishy mouths agape, the cartoon-y cameos create a much-needed moment of bathos. Similarly, when a retinue of child-soldiers appears at the end of the opera using crutches and nursing bandaged wounds, director Tony Taccone avoids sentimentality by drawing out performances that are simple and clean.
Still, even in Brundibar, the more compelling of the two operas (in large part due to Krása's delicate score), it's ultimately difficult to get over the fact that we're watching kids at work. As Brundibar's siblings, Pepicek and Aninku, Aaron Simon Gross and Devynn Pedell are remarkably talented, with powerful voices and physicality. The 29 kids from Bay Area schools who make up the rest of the production's junior cast are equally wonderful. But no matter how good they are, a little of the illusion dies when we see children onstage. It feels a bit like the disconnect between the magic of Father Christmas and the reality of a fat guy in a red suit. The child actor Shirley Temple put it well: "I stopped believing in Santa Claus when my mother took me to see him in a department store, and he asked for my autograph."