By Pat Launer
It’s Good vs. Evil at Lamb’s Players Theatre
If you like legends, heroic tales, allegories, Christian mythos or fantasy fiction, you’ll really like “The Book of the Dun Cow” at Lamb’s Players Theatre. It’s an adaptation of a 1978 novel whose title came from a 12th century manuscript written by Irish monks.
In the vein of “Animal Farm” or ‘ Watership Down,” all the characters are animals: the timid mouse, the weaselly weasel (on wheelies!), the cackling chickens, howling dog, cocky cock and cunning fox. Though it borrows from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’), Norse mythology and the heroic epic, ‘Beowulf,’ the style bears closest resemblance to the Christian fiction of C.S. Lewis. Walter Wangerin , Jr., who won the National Book Award for this first novel, started out as a Lutheran minister, and has written many Bible-based non-fiction works.
It all comes down to an age-old battle between Good and Evil.
In an ancient time, before Man roamed the earth, God’s in his heaven, with the devilish Wyrm down below. Faith is what makes the rooster-leader Chauntecleer Do the Right Thing. It’s what makes him seek Redemption at the end of the story. The Dun Cow of the title (named for the Irish text bound in light tan leather) is a messenger of God. The Mundo Cani Dog makes a Christ-like sacrifice for the good of the community. And in the climactic second-act skirmish, the high-point of a stunning but fairly stagnant show, Chaunticleer dukes it out with the Devil’s spawn, a rooster-hybrid named Cockatrice. This acrobatic combat occurs in mid air, in the style of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
The design of the production is superb. Mike Buckley’s set is a versatile array of craggy rocks that fracture when the earth splits open to reveal the smoky depths of the unseen, demonic serpentine Wyrm . The lighting (Nathan Peirson ) is often on the dark side onstage, but diagonal shafts of red, laser-like beams make for a dramatic sky. Even the props ( Michael McKeon ) are a delight, particularly the ingenious lineup of bobbing baby mice.
Jeanne Reith ’s costumes are magnificent: wildly imaginative renderings of barnyard and forest denizens. The hens and roosters are especially well outfitted, and choreographer Colleen Kollar Smith has given everyone wonderfully species- speicifc moves. The masks ( Aina O’Kane ) and makeup (Jesse Abeel and Season Marshall Duffy) are terrific, with suggestive shapes and colors painted on cheeks and pates.
Underscoring it all is a marvelously evocative soundscape, composed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth , employing everything from harp to voice to percussive noisemakers. Thrilling. As is that aerial battle to the death.
The cast is uniformly strong. As Chauntecleer , Lance Arthur Smith is the very portrait of strutting braggadocio, though he’s also adept at revealing the character’s flaws, doubts and weaknesses. The hens (Kathleen Calvin, Season Duffy , Cynthia Gerber and Caitie Grady) are exceptional in their moves and sounds (Grady is a notable whiz at incorporating agitated chick-clucks into her humanoid discourse). Cynthia Berger made her Lamb’s Players debut in “Dun Cow” in the 1980s, playing the timorous Wee Widow Mouse. With her diminutive stature, reedy voice and twitchy nose, she’s as adorably convincing as she was the first time around.
Bryan Barbarin is heartbreaking as the howling Mundo Cani Dog , and Jesse Abeel is a whirlwind wonder as John Wesley Weasel. Season Duffy has an aptly ethereal air as Pertelote , the beautifully attired white hen with the blood-red ruff, and Duffy’s husband, Patrick Duffy, is evil incarnate as that rooster-gone-bad, Cockatrice.
David Cochran Heath, as Lord Russell Fox, serves as our guide and narrator. And here’s where part of the problem lies. The story is all about creating an alternate universe. But it’s hard to get lost in that world when the narration, which insists on referring directly to ‘The Book of the Dun Cow,’ keeps tugging us outside the action.
Director Robert Smyth , whose work here is quite inventive, co-adapted the novel with Lambs resident playwright Kerry Meads. Though it has many memorable scenes and magical moments, as a play, it feels static and unsatisfying, lacking the action, poetry and emotional impact of the book. But what a stunning production!
“The Book of the Dun Cow” continues through May 15 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado .
Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm and Sunday at 2pm
Tickets ($28-58) are available at 619-437-6000 or www.lambsplayers.org