KidLit Onstage: “Flora & Ulysses” @ OCT

Holy bagumba! Oregon Children’s Theatre presented John Glore’s play adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses from February 25-March 26, 2017 at the Winningstad Theatre in Portland. I was able to catch the show with my dear friend Niki on March 19.

Image Credit: K.G. Campbell (Candlewick, 2013)

Wherever you are, heroism is bound to show up somewhere: on stage or screen, out in the real world, even in the audience of people next to you. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of Flora and Ulysses celebrates these heroes, big and small. Prior to the show, children are invited to create their own superhero identity and display it for all to see in the lobby. Though this extension activity is little more than coloring pages, the purpose behind it holds strong. We all have the chance to be heroes.

The first thing I notice when I sit in the theatre is the giant, four-room set piece looming upstage. A white projection screen covers each quadrant of the set piece, giving the impression of comic book panels—a brilliant design choice. It is the perfect nod to K.G. Campbell’s illustrations, and it adds for a fun, multimedia experience. Throughout the play the panels are mostly used for black and white projections that continue the setting. In one scene, the sky is projected overhead the Buckman home; in another, the tell-tale giant donut sits atop a diner. The best uses, however, are the projections of Ulysses’ thought bubbles and the dramatic captions drawn directly from Flora’s beloved comic book. These projections really bring the world of the book alive onstage. And, because this is theatre, the play is also able to use animation to take the book’s illustrations a step into another medium. Animated clips, such as a close-up of the squirrel typing, show us what is obscured by the distance between stage and audience. These moments are never quite synced with the real-time action (or, at times, even the dialogue) but somehow it all works. The exception: the narrator would speak what was already projected moments ago. Though certainly helpful for those children who haven’t yet learned to decode and might otherwise miss key moments, this repetition is otherwise redundant.

The star of the show is Ulysses, played by a squirrel puppet in the hands of a young puppeteer. My favorite touch: the puppeteer kicking out his Heelys in moments when the squirrel would fly. The slow-motion fight choreography is equally excellent. Children giggle when squirrel puppet and cat puppet duke it out onstage. That the children in the audience generally laugh less than adults, however, seems to confirm my suspicions that the book—and, thus, the play—constructs childhood for the entertainment of the adult audience. We adults love and celebrate precocious children. But actual children, I’m afraid, are more interested in the moments of action than the witty dialogue.

It’s impossible to talk about the story without also addressing Flora’s mother—the writer who, while treating Flora like an adult, has lines that are laced with unforgivable cruelty. In this production, Phyllis Buckman has quit smoking, opting instead for candy cigarettes that she devours in times of squirrel-induced stress. While I can’t help but love to hate this character, I’m reminded of Megan Dowd Lambert’s Horn Book essay, “Words for Flora’s Mother (and Other Imperfect Parents).” Lambert, like Phyllis herself, reminds us to think before we judge. Not all parents in children’s literature—and indeed children’s theatre—are or need be perfect.

Though I can’t imagine another ending for the play given the format of the book, I am surprised by the clunky round-robin reading of Ulysses’ final poem and the abrupt shift to a projection of the galaxy over the audience while another squirrel puppet flies overhead. Children, on the other hand, are delighted. I try to stare up at the wackiness with them and find some childlike appreciation. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production is a solid, faithful retelling of a book that is a prime example of a book we wish our kids would read and a play we wish our kids would see. But the squirrel flying overhead? That is something that ignites pure joy and will keep child patrons coming back for more.

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