Eugene Weekly : Theater : 7.12.07

Peachy Keen
Mad Duckling delivers with James

The UO’s Mad Duckling Children’s Theater is one of those summer traditions, like sparklers and popsicles, that made me want to turn in my calm and productive existence for two children and a Subaru. Mad Duckling does so much right in the world of children’s theater that for years I had to borrow other people’s kids to have an excuse to go. This year I had my own 4-year-old, Owen.

Mad Duckling opens the season with James and the Giant Peach, adapted by David Wood from Roald Dahl’s 1961 novel. It is the story of a young boy who accidentally spills a powerful magic potion on the ground, creating an enormous peach the size of a house and five human-sized insects. James escapes the abuse of his sadistic aunts by climbing into the peach with the insects, cutting it loose from the tree and having numerous adventures as the peach sails across the Atlantic to New York City. The darker events are sensitively skirted in the play. You and your child will not see James’s parents being eaten by a rhinoceros (can herbivores even digest people?), and the play does not encourage children to flatten their evil aunties with abnormally large fruit.

The action-packed story is condensed into 50 minutes and seven actors, so scenes and characters change quickly with few props and costumes to help the audience along. Because Giant Peach is pure fantasy, it is an exercise in imagination and focus well suited to 6- and 7-year-olds but hard for a 4-year-old to follow.

The cast did a fine job keeping up with the pace of the show and tempering their over-the-top characters with real emotion. Kids laugh at the squabbling aunts and worry about where James should hide the magic potion. Occasionally scenes lose children’s attention, but for the most part the actors are able to walk the line of overacting just enough — and Jessie Ryan, the Spider, performs flawlessly. The physical action of the characters is paramount and impressively choreographed and executed. As narrator, Joseph Oyala leads the show with admirable humor and energy, even acting as several characters along the way. At one point a ship’s captain and two sock puppets have some dialogue, and I did not realize until the end of the scene that Oyala was playing all three.

The big news for Mad Duckling this year is the change of venue. Rather than the shady knoll next to Villard Hall, Mad Duckling has moved to Amazon Park in Eugene and Island Park in Springfield. I was disappointed; I enjoy taking Owen to campus for special events. When I told him we were going to a play at the park, that quickly got switched in his mind to we were going to play at the park, so he was a little disappointed to sit down in the grass. But once the actors and props began spinning around on the stage, we could have been anywhere.

James and the Giant Peach plays in Amazon Park at 11 am through Saturday, July 14. It moves to Island Park in Springfield for 11 am performances July 17- 21. Tix available at 346-4192.