NATIONAL CITY — Once upon a time, before there were movies, people looked to the theater for magic. Today, in the wonderful world of Disney and special effects, theater has been increasingly relegated to the depiction of the realistic. Even in such big-budget exceptions as "Cats" and "Starlight Express," expensive pyrotechnics, more than imagination, seem to be what bring the canines and trains to life.
What a special joy, then, to catch the magically inventive adaptation of "The Book of the Dun Cow," premiering at the Lamb's Players Theatre through July 24.
In portraying Walter Wangerin's allegorical fantasy about Chauntecleer the Rooster's battle to save an animal world from evil, the Lamb's repertory company has done nothing less than reclaim the world of the imagination for the theater.
Wearing brightly colored bits of fabric arranged like feathers around a leotard neck and ankles, veteran Lamb's player David Cochran Heath conveys the proud rooster with a slightly akimbo walk and a most chicken-like twitch of the neck. A swift journey on the back of a dog (Ken Wagner) is accompanied by the barefooted, gaily festooned leotard-clad players swaying as they wave blue scarfs on sticks to suggest the rushing wind.
The story itself is simple to the point of being simplistic, with good and evil as easily distinguishable as the good witch from the wicked one in "The Wizard of Oz."
In a world that predates humankind, Chauntecleer rules over a variety of animals, including a coop of chickens, John Wesley Weasel and Wee Widow Mouse. A neighboring, aging rooster who does not get the respect he desires from his subjects makes a deal with the Worm (think Devil) for power. The rooster then sires Cockatrice, a half devil, with whom Chauntecleer must ultimately fight to save his world.
Under the deft direction of Robert Smyth, who co-wrote the adaptation with Kerry Cederberg, the Lamb's Players' "Cow" shows how well an ensemble of actors who understand each other can work. Heath is at once all-rooster and all-human as Chauntecleer. Deborah Gilmour Smyth, so fresh and winning in the Lamb's recent production of Saint Joan, slithers easily from sainthood to Satanhood as Cockatrice.
Tom Stephenson plays an exhausting variety of parts, from the narrator, to Lord Russell Fox to the aging rooster, all with cool panache; the sweat hardly shows. Wagner goes right to the true-blue heart of Chauntecleer's faithful Mundo Cani Dog.
Cederberg, a gifted comic actress, looks lovely but not quite comfortable in the role of Pertelote, Chauntecleer's true love; she seems always about to crack a joke that never comes. In contrast, Cynthia Peters has the drama of Wee Widow Mouse down to poignant nose-twitching perfection.
Mike Buckley, who designed the marvelous, Mardi Gras-like costumes along with Veronica Murphy Smith, is endearingly spunky as John Wesley Weasel. But Smith's portrayal of Beryl the Hen, while it has much spirit to recommend it, treads a fine line of servility in a world where male chauvinism reigns in the form of male roosters lording it over housebound hens and female mice.
Pamela Turner, who did the elegant choreography, dances in eloquent silence as the Dun Cow, the comforting messenger of God, who is invisible to all but Chauntecleer.
Ultimately, the irony of this consummately skillful production is that what the Lamb's Players do with "The Book of the Dun Cow" is far more enchanting than their source of inspiration. The most exciting element in the production is the thought of how well this company might take on even more fantastical quests.
Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 through July 24. At the Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.
Director James C. Manley had a wonderful idea for updating Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience," a spoof of 19th century aesthetes and their faddish lovesick followers. Why not take the Oscar Wildes and Algernon Swinburns of yesterday and cast them as the Rudolph Valentinos of the Roaring '20s?
If only he had. In Manley's production of "Patience," at the Casa del Prado Theatre through July 3, some of Cindy J. Cetinske's sumptuous costumes are pure 1920s camp. But like the vagaries of production itself, they're all mixed up with old fashioned English dragoon uniforms and a frilly milkmaid outfit for the simple Patience that makes her look as if she wandered in from a Disney movie.
The individual performances are fine. Paul Jennings and John Polhamus are particularly funny as the unabashedly affected rival poets; Diane Winterton is as strong and clear a Patience as can be wished, and Patricia Minton Smith and Patricia McAfee are comic delights as Ladies Angela and Jane. The chief disappointment is the distance between the promise inherent in the idea of updating the show and its ultimate confused execution.
Performances at 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. through July 3. At the Casa del Prado Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.