Human beans and hungry giants

You discover, once you’re a parent, that some things—from sibling rivalry to homework battles—are nearly unavoidable. So it is with certain children’s authors, such as Seuss, Silverstein and Dahl.

My kids read plenty of Roald Dahl books during elementary school, mostly at the behest of teachers who seemed to be charmed themselves by titles like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Dahl’s interest in writing children’s books was fueled by his delight in crafting stories for two young daughters—Tessa and Olivia. Often he writes with the perspective of a child caught in a world of extremely silly or insensitive grown-ups.

Truthfully, the world of Roald Dahl has never really spoken to me—until now. It was seeing Childsplay perform “The Big Friendly Giant” recently at Tempe Center for the Arts that opened my eyes to the wonders of Roald Dahl, even to the wonders of the world in general.

“The BFG” opens with a little girl, Sophie, tucked away in her room—but still able to hear the shrill calls of demanding adults. Come bedtime, Sophie spies a giant creature outside her window.

Soon Sophie (played by Debra K. Stevens) is snatched up and taken back to the BFG’s humble home, where the BFG (played by Dwayne Hartford) explains that he means her no harm. It’s simply what a giant must do once a human learns of its existence.

Still, he’s no ordinary giant. He’s actually rather small by giant standards, and not at all fierce like giants with names like Gizzardgulper, Bonecruncher and Childchewer.

His fellow giants find humans quite tasty, but the BFG has a different palate and a distinctive pastime. He catches dreams—then distributes them to their rightful owners.

Meanwhile, terror is afoot in Europe—where there’s talk of giants feasting on children snatched in growing numbers. Sophie and the BFG come to the rescue, proving that folks who are quite different can unite in pursuit of a good and common goal.

Along the way, we meet several giants rocking an almost “Where the Wild Things Are” vibe—as well as a couple of queens with accents that leave the audience howling.

The Queen of England is played by Katie McFadzen and the Queen of Scotland by Laura Berger (in Berger’s case, picture Betty White—on steroids).

Sidekicks Jon Gentry (Head of the Army) and D. Scott Withers (Head of the Air Force) up the funny factor in their bumbling, albeit dedicated, service to England’s Queen.

In the end, of course, that pesky human-eating habit is resolved through teamwork and trust.

Along the way, we’re charmed by unique giant customs like “whizzpopping”—the delightful consequence of drinking carbonated beverages in which the bubbles travel down rather than up.

It certainly made an impression on the three 4th and 5th grade boys seated in front of me, who turned to me during intermission to note that the subject matter might not be appropriate for “little kids.”

Childsplay recommends “The BFG” for ages six and up—and when they say “and up” they mean it. Grown-ups attending “The Big Friendly Giant” laughed every bit as often and outrageously as the younger set.

As always, Childsplay does a masterful job of expanding learning opportunities beyond the curtain call. A “talk back” with cast members after the show covered everything from examples of bravery exhibited by various characters to how certain props and lights are operated during the show.

Guests leaving the theater after the show receive a “For the ride home…” handout thanks to Childsplay’s “360º Theatre” sponsor—Banner Health Cardon Children’s Medical Center.

It’s full of ideas for BFG-related activities, like creating a menu (without humans) a giant might like, starting your own dream diary or considering ways best friends are sometimes similar yet different.

Guests can purchase Roald Dahl books to enjoy at home, learn about the dialect reflected in the BFG’s “punnery” and word play, and explore the world of dreams (including dreams in various cultures, dreams throughout history and the role of dreams in creativity).

I learned from one display that the tune for the Beatles’ hit “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream. I had some fun spinning various combinations of nonsense words using side-by-side Rolodex gizmos. I even checked out the artwork of guests who invented new words and drew pictures to illustrate them.

The real master of new things is David Saar, Childsplay’s founder and artistic director. Saar directs this production, which is profoundly imbued with his own dreams and daring. It’s another not-to-be-missed adventure in the fine art of storytelling.

–Lynn

Note: The cast of “The Big Friendly Giant” also includes Andres Alcala, who shared the following when asked about his favorite giant or monster: “Andre the Giant is my favorite because he is so gentle.” Read your program closely when you see the show to learn which cast members favor the Jolly Green Giant, the Wild Things and other monsters that might be less familiar.

Coming up: A sneak peek at Childsplay’s 2010-2011 season, including an original Childsplay production called “The Imaginators” by playwright Dwayne Hartford—who shares that a particular character in the play was inspired by his own favorite monster ala Edward Gorey.

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