With the worst of the pandemic hopefully in the rear view mirror, Young Artists Ensemble is back in action with another stellar introduction to children’s theatre. Joseph Robinette’s The Jungle Book is a condensation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories about Mowgli the man-cub, first published in 1894. Through his book and its colorful anthropomorphic animal characters, Kipling was able to teach concepts such as respect for authority, obedience, and the freedom to exist in different kinds of societies while still retaining an element of self. Over the past century, many adaptations of the Mowgli stories have been produced for film, television, and the stage, although the 1967 Disney musical has overwhelmed the original stories in modern popular culture. YAE’s production plays at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts’ black box theatre through February 20, with performances by the Conejo Theatre for Everyone following from February 25-27.
The stage play’s publisher states that Joseph Robinette’s adaptation “highlights the struggle of good versus evil, the worth of friendship, and the importance of loyalty and other values required for surviving the ‘law of the jungle.'”
The Jungle Book stage play jockeys between scenes of the Indian jungle and an English boarding school, where young Rudyard Kipling is writing his stories. Kipling’s characters represent his own personal “jungle,” most notably, Hanley and Fielding, two school boy bullies, who Kipling represented by inventing the characters of Shere Khan, a tiger, and Tabaqui, a jackal.
The story takes place in 1880, when Kipling would have been 15 years old. Kipling is Mowgli, a young boy who is being bullied by Hanley and Fielding for being born in India. The headmaster enters to assess young Kipling’s progress as the scene changes to Kipling’s imaginary jungle world.
The story follows the main themes of the Disney film, which focus on two of Kipling’s stories, “Mowgli’s Brothers” and “Kaa’s Hunting.” In the first, Mowgli, an abandoned child, is brought up by a pack of wolves, led by Akela, with the help of Baloo, a bear, and Bagheera, a black panther, who teach him the “law of the jungle.” Some years later, the wolf pack and Mowgli are threatened by the calculating tiger Shere Khan. In the second story, Mowgli is abducted by a band of monkeys but is rescued when Kaa, a python with magical hypnotic powers, enables Baloo and Bagheera to rescue Mowgli.
YAE’s cast is led by Milo Sinclair as Mowgli with Emilia Hampton as Akela, Piper Hall as Balooo, and Becca Glaubke as Bagheera. Aster Smith plays Shere Khan with appropriate menace while Tabaqui is played by Gigi Killer. The sleek and shifty snake Kaa is portrayed by Lillian Aurora Ward with Noble Crandall as Hathi the elephant.
The ensemble portraying the Bandar-log monkeys enjoyed their parts, which included tumbling, screeching, and swinging from a thick rope suspended from the studio rafters while the wolf ensemble howled and slid across the stage floor in their scenes.
Jess Coffman directed with Mark Andrew Reyes providing the appropriate jungle ambience, using animated rear projection and atmospheric sound effects such as chirping crickets and running water, the latter courtesy sound designer Ian Kelley. Lorna Bowen provided the colorful costumes worn by the cast, which included head masks to indicate each character’s animal. In addition, the theatre protocol required all cast members to wear protective face masks. Despite this, most of the actors were able to project their voices, which are heard distinctly throughout the theater.
Young children will enjoy the production, which teaches lessons about group dynamics, bullying, and using your wits instead of your fists to defeat an enemy. It would be interesting to discuss with children the play’s promotion of segregation, in which the “natural order” of societies is to live with one’s own kind. Mowgli’s character proves that one can adapt to a foreign culture if they are acquainted with that culture’s own unique “laws.”
An added feature of the production is the theatre’s foyer, in which two visual displays showcase educational background information on Kipling, including photographs of him as a child and as an adult, images of the boarding school he attended, his home in Mumbai, India, and a vintage map of British India as it existed in the late 19th century. On another wall patrons can view illustrations from the original publication as well as a listing of the various stories in Kipling’s two Jungle Books.
For ticket information, call (805) 381-1246 or visit YAEonline.com.