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Mad Poetry for All 

Megan and the Magic Compass

Wednesday, Dec 29 1999
There's a good chance that people who normally visit theaters in San Francisco will notice the slim range of plays open in this dead week between Christmas and New Year's and assume there's nothing to see. They might read that Megan and the Magic Compass is for kids, and settle instead on something "adult," like Who's Afraid of Edward Albee? or A Christmas Carol. Those people will suffer bitterly. They may not even realize they're in pain; because Megan is not just a play for children, but also the latest production by a fine local writer, Mark Jackson, and a loose affiliation of local actors who turn up otherwise mainly in experimental plays.

It features a Mad Poet and his assistant, Scrib, who tell an original fairy tale called "Megan and the Magic Compass," which then gets produced beside them onstage, and frequently interrupted. Actors talk directly to the mass of children in the seats to make them feel involved. The whole thing is an act of grade-school meta-theater. I admit that the show is aimed at kids, and that adults who go may feel old, but it's also irresistibly fun. The Mad Poet looks like a carnival barker in shabby-genteel clothes. He forgets his trains of thought, sits down where there are no chairs, misses cues for his own story, and at one point manages to lose track of himself. ("Where am I? What's happened?") He's the familiar stereotype of an absent-minded master of ceremonies who needs an assistant like Scrib to keep the ceremonies mastered, and in the version I saw, he was played with believable bumblingness by Jason Craig.

The story has Megan and her bratty friend Zak waking up one morning after an earthquake. They meet an old woman who tells them the sorry news: The moon is stuck, the sun fell into the sea, and a deep, impassable crack has opened between Megan's house and the nearest town. (Her parents, of course, are stuck in town.) The woman gives the children a magic compass as a tool to navigate around the crack, but warns them not to abuse it. Used for selfish ends, she says, it'll backfire. Megan thanks her, and Zak promptly abuses the compass by trying to go to Paris. They're flung instead on a wild journey through mountains, desert, and rolling waves. Zak, as punishment, is turned into various animals. But in the end the children wind up saving the world, and even learn a hoary moral or two.

It's standard fairy tale stuff, but it's fun. They run into talking seaweed, a remarkably civilized lizard, and a trashy, gossipy moon. Director Meredith Eldred has put a lot of energy into making the set changes busy and ridiculous, with all the actors running around to hook up waving blue strips of fabric when Megan and Zak land in the sea, or hauling in snowcapped mountains (with the lippy puppet moon stranded on top) when they get transported to the Alps. The puppets themselves are nicely detailed, cushiony things by Art Grueneberger.

The show plays twice daily for a month -- mostly in the afternoon -- and two casts alternate to handle the workload. I saw Gillian Brecker as Megan, Chris Kuckenbaker as a spry and rubbery Zak, Jessica Jelliffe as Scrib, and Gillian Chadsey and Heather Peroni as the two "Kokens," or stage assistant/puppeteers. Chadsey did the moon and a Southern-inflected branch of seaweed with real comic flair; Peroni was wistful as the monocled lizard and an argumentative cloud; Brecker played a sane, prim Megan. Kuckenbaker was able to indulge his naturally funny and bug-eyed persona as Zak; it was a shame, to me, that he had to distort himself for most of the show by turning into other creatures.

The script may be too involved for young children to follow -- it doesn't have the elemental simplicity of a folk tale -- but there's enough action from scene to scene to keep even kindergartners engaged. The puppets fascinated the young audience on the day I saw the show, but the Kokens' clownlike mugging and running around during scene shifts, for some reason, left them cold. In fact a lot of the action that was tailored for kids seemed to fail. They liked audience participation, and thought the Mad Poet losing himself was an excellent joke; but millennial children are apparently too sophisticated for unnecessary vaudeville routines.

Most of the cast and crew on Megan have worked on absurdist shows at the Exit or created experimental shows derived from Anne Bogart's workshop on movement theater: They make up a cross-section of the city's serious avant-garde (as far as we have one). Watching them put on a simple traditional show is not only good entertainment; for some of them, acting in a straight comic role, instead of writhing on the floor, is also good discipline.


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