Arden Theatre Company presents
James and the Giant Peach
By David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
10 December 2008 – 8 February 2009
F. Otto Haas Stage
Readers hold Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—itself a standout from the author’s body of classics—as personal as Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter, and countless others children’s tales. Peach also proves to be an “interactive” as any other. After the premiere of David Wood’s new Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden in Philadelphia, adult audience members shared their favorite character from childhood. “I always likes the spider,” one woman said. A man returned: “I love that centipede, with all his shoes.” Nostalgia was in the air, while their kids found a new delight. Some recognized the bright-lit and -spirited performance from a book their parents recently read to them. With questions and enthusiastic comments, others were obviously newcomers.
As for my favorite characters, I have always loved those wicked aunts, Sponge and Spiker. They offer the darkest dimension to Dahl’s text. As recognizable family members, they are at once associated with the familiar, but nonetheless are distant, strange. When James comes to live with them—after Dahl’s whimsically placed rhino kills the boy’s parents—they set little James to endless chores, thus serving as the wicked stepmother motif of classic fairy tales. Meanwhile, we have two aunts living together who are not clearly marked as sisters—two lesbians that society (and cultural history) has locked away, perhaps? If so, then their wickedness is no fault of their own, in that they are trapped in the cultural “closet” for the story’s purpose.
Mean-spirited or no, the aunts serve as an accidental jest to modern audiences, and it certainly isn’t lost on Whit MacLaughlin. This stage director has cast Harum Ulmer (Driving Miss Daisy at the Hedgerow Theater) as Aunt Spiker in David Wood’s Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden (running through February 8), next to Stephanie English’s Sponge. Ulmer makes for an outright tranny-ish Spiker, lovably villainous to the kids as the parents wink along. The gangly actor grates his lines and hams them up like Tyler Perry’s Madea, shrunken thin to fit the current proceedings. English’s pillowy Sponge – complete with butt pads the size of basketballs – serves as a sidekick.
Their victim, the unlikely named James Ijames, plays the title character with wide eyes, a sure friend for the young audience. Wandering into a nightmarish life, he is a noble savage that finds a better family in those bugs that have grown along with the peach, the boys wish-fulfillment escape realized as a fantasy device. (While never forgetting his young audience, Ijames’s appearance in a schoolboy uniform with cap cannot escape the image of Angus young of AC/DC. Later in the show, the phrase “Hell’s Bells!” pops into the dialog, in case anyone’s missed the connection.) The title’s other main attraction comes in three forms: as a 12-foot-high prop emerging from the backstage, a floating version the size of a softball, and as a centered platform on the jutting stage, on which the bugs and James travel from the aunts’ grounds to a new home.
Of ripe color that’s almost florescent, the giant peach(es) is framed by a multi-panel digital screen friendly to the eyes of our digital youth. On screen appears backgrounds, and a cute introduction to the bugs, who are soon to be James’ friends. The digital projection adds much landscape to the jutting stage, even if it is outdone by the analog elements before it, more tactile to the intimate audience.
And, naturally, the other dark subtexts of Dahl are jettisoned in this very child-friendly adaptation, such as the sperm-like jewels that squirm into the ground to impregnate the waiting peach pit. Ijames’ mimed immersion into the peach—after it has grown large but is only imagined on the stage, at this point—sure feels like a birth-in-reverse, but that’s as close as this telling comes to Freudianism. Wood and MacLaughlin use the layout of the thrust stage in the F. Otto Haas theater to draw the kids into a (mostly) classical approach to children’s theater. It may play like Dahl on Cliffnotes to the adults, but the brief running time and exaggerated set pieces fall right into the little ones’ hands.