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Creature Feature 

At the beginning of The Wind in the Willows, currently on the boards at Southern Rep, a boy and a girl bunny in Edwardian clothing come out to have a picnic on the bank of the river. They mime a conversation -- or as the kid sitting next to me pointed out to his mom: "They're speaking, but they don't talk."

This perceptive child was, in fact, one of very few kids in the audience. That's a shame, because Kenneth Grahame's 1908 tale of the "River Folk" versus the "Wild Wood Folk" is an entertaining children's classic -- as British as a cup a tea and yet universally appealing. A girl who feels "peckish" thinks having a snack is a "topping" idea. You get the picture. If someone wants "bubble and squeak" for supper, we can go along with the delight, even though we wouldn't know the dish if it was set before us. In fact, some of the vocabulary might have a Doctor Seuss-like effect on the tots.

In any case, Mole (A. J. Allegra) comes to the riverbank in a minor fury because he hates spring cleaning. Who should he meet but Rat (Will Connolly) who is paddling down the river in his boat. Rat's idea of heaven is messing around in boats.

Mole has never been in a boat. Rat takes him aboard and they sail along, until they come to a good spot for a picnic. Soon we have a fair idea of the world these creatures live in. The River Folk are peaceable. Most of the Wild Wooders -- except for Badger (James Bartelle) -- are vicious, predatory beasts. The worst of whom are the weasels.

Soon Rat, known to his friends as Rattie, and Mole, known to his brother as Moley (he's never had a friend before), are bosom buddies. In fact, Rattie invites Moley in for the night because it's already getting dark and cold.

All right, so we've got the two friends (who seem to be the protagonists) and the nasty gang of villainous weasels in their vests and fedoras lurking in the shadows. Suddenly, however, a new and unclassifiable rascal bursts onto the scene: Mr. Toad -- Toad of Toad Hall (Sean Glazebrook). He's zestfully energetic and self-indulgent. "Shameless" doesn't do justice to this amphibian. He's like the id, without any psychic restraints. Not that he's a sex fiend. What he can't resist is movement. Speed and noise. Like, say, a motor car. Honk, honk. Vroom! That's the ticket. He's gone. In love. Out of control. He'll steal motorcars while the owners are not looking. He'll crash them. He owes fortunes in fines. Whatever. Who cares!

Now, as all his friends know, Toad is a maniac in the root sense of the word: he is subject to manias. He always thinks his latest mania is not a mania but is the real thing. For instance, just before he sets his eyes on a motorcar, he has bought himself a horse-drawn carriage. Oh, the odes that rise in his breast to glorify this magnificent time-honored, creaking vehicle. Until ... honk, honk, vroom! 'Scuse my dust. Upper class Toad, living the high life in the country manor his father built, has a flamboyant disregard for etiquette and convention -- not to mention work -- but he is fascinated by this latest technological gadget that offers a new thrill. The motorcar is not a mania, he insists, it is my destiny.

Our tragicomic hero ends up in a dungeon with a 20-year sentence, but thanks to the prison keeper's attractive daughter (Alexis Jacknow), he escapes -- disguised as a washerwoman -- and, after many misadventures, gets back to Toad Hall, which has been taken over by the weasels. I won't ruin the gripping climax by revealing the outcome of the final battle with the Wild Wooders. But you can rest assured that youngsters in the audience will approve.

Well-known, award-winning playwright Alan Bennett adapted The Wind in the Willows for stage. Alexis Jacknow directed this appealing production by NOLA Project. Joseph Riley designed the simple, effective set. Evan Prizant designed the costumes (avoiding complicated animal masks and such).

Among the other players who helped bring this fable to life -- by playing two dozen or so additional denizens of the English countryside -- were Peter McElligott, Kathlyn Tarwater and Andrew Larimer.

click to enlarge The world of woodland creatures is set astir in the - adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's children's classic The - Wind in the Willows.
  • The world of woodland creatures is set astir in the adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's children's classic The Wind in the Willows.
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