Bunny with a bite makes leap from page to stage
The cast of Texas Woman’s University’s summer children’s show, Bunnicula, is ready for its audience.
The players said they’re ready to roll with just about any reaction the children might have to the title character. Bunnicula is an oversized rabbit puppet, complete with fangs.
Taylor Reed, a TWU student who plays the role of the mom, said the cast is ready for the inevitable “ooohs” and “aaahs” and the squeals that are bound to accompany the puppet onstage.
“We know that not every kid is going to have the same reaction, though,” Reed said.
“Somebody’s going to be scared of the puppet, just like some kids were really scared of Miss Nelson last year when we did Miss Nelson Is Missing and just like some kids were really scared of the masks when we did Commedia Pinocchio,” said director Cristin Thomas. “That’s children’s theater. That’s how it works. You deal with that by introducing the masks. You work with the audience by preparing them.”
Bunnicula is musical adaptation of the 1979 children’s chapter book by Deborah and James Howe. The story is about a pair of pets who are surprised when their family, the Monroes, brings home an orphan bunny they discovered at the movies.
Harold, the dog, and Chester, the cat, think their newest roommate might be doing unseemly things to the household produce when all the vegetables in the house start turning up colorless and drained of juice. They put their sniffers to the trail and learn that cute little whiskers might disguise a distasteful identity.
“We picked the show back in the spring,” said Patrick Bynane, director of the TWU theater program. “It’s a well-known classic children’s book. It isn’t a picture book, but it gets read in a lot of schools and is in a lot of school libraries. And the show has been well-tested at very good theaters. It premiered at Seattle [Children’s Theatre], which is a really good company.”
Bynane said the program wanted to select a show that would entertain young audience members and challenge them, too.
“We didn’t want to do something that’s silly for silliness’ sake,” he said. “We wanted to do something that is tied to children’s literature.”
That’s not to say Bunnicula doesn’t have moments of sheer silliness. Ariana Cook, a TWU graduate student who plays the role of Chester, gets to indulge in some feline friskiness that is bound to tickle the audience. Take, for instance, a scene in which Mrs. Monroe pours some milk for the new bunny. Chester takes leave of his senses, hopping on to the kitchen counter and nearly scrambling over the lady of the house to get to his favorite treat.
“I haven’t done children’s theater in a really long time, and we just did [a play by Anton] Chekov. And with Chekov, we were coming from this really subtle style,” Cook said. “Coming into this, where everything needs to be really big, is a bit of a challenge.”
Reed said young audiences aren’t bound by etiquette to sit quietly if a play bores them.
“Attention spans are shorter with kids, so if you lose them, it’s really hard to get them back,” said Reed, who has been in the last several summer children’s plays at TWU.
It helps that the main characters are creatures who are endearing to a lot of children. Shane Strawbridge, who plays the role of the affable Harold, said he looked to his own dog for the qualities he’d give his character.
“I’m a dog person,” Strawbridge said. “My dog always reacted to noises, so I took that idea of the bipolar nature of dogs — that sort of ‘huh?’ attitude, to trying to kill the cat in a second.”
Cook said she made a trip to the store to buy some shrimp cocktail — a favorite of her own cat. She watched the cat’s response, then added some of the enthusiasm into her performance — up to and including nearly climbing onto the refrigerator on the set.
As for the Monroe family, those players keep the fourth wall up, going on about their stage business oblivious to the dialogue between cat and dog.
Student Angela Phillips is the puppeteer who brings Bunnicula to life. Bynane said the company is renting the puppet from the Orlando Repertory Theatre, where Bunnicula was built to the book’s description.
The white rabbit has a cloak-like marking of black fur and a cap-like patch of black fur on his head, coming to a signature Dracula-style widow’s peak.
“Cristin told me to ‘be the Bunny,’” Phillips said.
And she does. Dressed in black, Phillips moves her body along with the puppet. Her head dips and turns along with Bunnicula’s. She crouches when she lowers the puppet to the floor in a pre-hop crouch.
“I watched Charlotte’s Web, and I was amazed at how I really stopped seeing the puppeteers as the play went on. It didn’t take long,” Phillips said. “I’m trying to make sure that I’m moving his head, that he’s not just sitting there when we’re listening. And I’m trying to add little things, like wiggling his butt before he jumps.”
Thomas said the young audiences won’t be the only ones learning as they watch the show.
“Using puppets is an educational opportunity for our students,” the director said. “And not just the puppeteer, but for the rest of the cast. They are the other part of bringing this thing to life. They have to watch him and react to the puppet.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
What: TWU Drama Department presents Bunnicula, a musical by writer Jon Klein and composer Chris Jeffries, adapted from the children’s chapter book by James and Deborah Howe.
When: 10 a.m. today, Friday, Wednesday and June 27-28; 2 p.m. today through Sunday and June 28-30; and 7 p.m. Saturday and June 29.
Details: Suitable for all ages. The show includes six musical numbers and runs about one hour, with no intermission. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. Tickets are selling briskly. For reservations, call 940-898-2020.
On the Web: www.twu.edu/drama