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It's a 'Jungal' Out There

A play for kids and parents brings Kipling into the '90s, with issues every schoolchild will know.

May 01, 1997|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If it's not sand in your shoes, it's beefy jerks on the basketball court. The swings are too childish and the bleachers are hotter than a short-order cook's grill.

Recess; it's no place for wimps.

In "Jungalbook," playwright Edward Mast moves Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories out of the 19th century jungle to a setting more relevant to kids: the blacktop jungle where they grapple with conflict resolution and self-confidence issues during games of dodge ball.

Directed by Robert G. Leigh, the Rancho Santiago College production of "Jungalbook" opens Friday and continues through May 11 in the Drama Lab at the college's Orange campus. Leigh recommends the one-hour show for students in grades four and up as well as for adults.

"Jungle Book," first published in 1894, and "The Second Jungle Book," 1895, follow the adventures of Mowgli, an Indian child who is orphaned in the jungle and grows up among the animals. Stalked by Shere Khan, the tiger who killed his parents and is now obsessed with killing him, Mowgli must learn to conquer his fears and live by the jungle's law.

Leigh, who teaches theater arts at several local colleges, is quick to point out that Mast's 1982 take on Kipling's stories has virtually nothing in common with Disney's animated "Jungle Book" of 1967.

"No people in bear suits," confirmed Leigh. The play and the movie are "as different as night and day."

Mast's script, it seems, is the weightier of the two. The themes addressed in the show are serious business to youngsters teetering on the brink between childhood and adulthood, Leigh said.

"I think of it as a fantasy a sixth-grader might have while he was on the playground," he explained, "because it's about what he's dealing with, his struggle to leave a safe environment and move on to the next level in his life."

In the Rancho Santiago College production, Kipling's animal characters--Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear, Shere Khan and the rest of the gang--are anthropomorphized, but each character still has some link to his or her wild inspiration, Leigh said. Shere Khan, for example, moves with the powerful grace of a tiger on the prowl. Baloo, portrayed here as an affable janitor-umpire in bulky catcher's padding, keeps a fatherly eye on Mowgli's growth and steps in to lend a hand when he can.

The show's designers underscore the link between urban and literal jungle. Gina Davidson's costumes run toward '90s kid chic, with baggy shorts, high tops and athletic wear; Dan Silvio Volonte's multilevel set is patterned after a down-at-its-heels urban playground. Live music adds texture and rhythm to the piece. As Mowgli progresses from man-cub to man, the look and the sound subtly change, taking on a richer, earthier quality, Leigh said.

With its themes of predator versus prey and loyalty versus deceit, "Jungalbook" is darker than your typical "upbeat fairy tale," acknowledged Leigh, who said he expects adults as well as youths to relate emotionally to the piece. But in the final analysis, he says, "Jungalbook" is a parable with vital lessons.

"It's a coming-of-age story," Leigh said. "It's just like 'Oedipus' or 'Hamlet.' It's about taking responsibility, facing up to your potential and the price we pay for knowledge and truth."

BE THERE

Rancho Santiago College Theatre Arts Department presents "Jungalbook" at the Drama Lab, 8045 E. Chapman Ave., Orange. Half-price preview performance, 8 p.m. today. Regular performances: 8 p.m. Friday and May 9, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday and May 10, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and May 11. $5-$8. (714) 564-5661.

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