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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Wind in the Willows and
The Twelve Dates of Christmas


Khris Davis, Daniel Fredrick, Sean Close and Jake Blouch
Photo by Alexander Burns
Quintessence Theatre's holiday presentation, The Wind in the Willows, takes place in a world far different from our own. It's a world where Britannia rules the waves, otters wear derbies, and weasels wear fedoras. It's a world where men are men, except for the men who get dressed up as women to get a laugh. And it's a world where stealing a car isn't as great a sin as using improper grammar. Alan Bennett's adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's novel brings this world to the stage vividly, and director Alexander Burns' production is as warm and stimulating as a pot of Earl Grey on a winter's day.

Part of the reason for the continuing popularity of The Wind in the Willows is the simple but distinctive personalities Grahame gave his characters. There's Rat (Daniel Fredrick), a man of the world with the aura of a retired sea captain; Mole (Sean Close), his eager and naïve student; the grumpy but sensible Badger (Jake Blouch); and Toad (Khris Davis), an overgrown child who acts on every one of his impulses, no matter how bizarre. Each actor gives a fine performance, with Davis' bug-eyed, over-the-top Toad a standout (and a clear favorite of the kids in the audience). But I most enjoyed Sean Bradley's droll, deadpan turn as Albert, a horse so depressive he'd make Eeyore want to blow his brains out.

Bennett's script compresses the story efficiently while offering winking commentary on itself. It's punctuated by brief but effective songs by Jeremy Sams; Jamison Foreman (who also plays Otter) provides fine arrangements, with some gorgeous choral singing by the cast.

For a children's show, The Wind in the Willows is pretty long. The performance I attended started just after 7 p.m. and ended at 9:50. That length can be a test for many children (not to mention their parents), but the children at my performance seemed to be paying close attention. Burns' production doesn't talk down to kids, but it's filled with elements that can engage a child's imagination: a wooden crate turns into a rowboat, then a car, then a train, while a bride's long white veil becomes an ice-covered river.

None of the actors (except a couple of supporting rabbits) dress like the actual animals they're portraying. This is specified in Bennett's script; in one witty scene, a weasel pretends to be a cow—and gets away with it. Yet Jane Casanave's everyday costumes disappoint. The story is still set in Edwardian England, and is filled with references to horse-drawn caravans and "motor cars," but Casanave's costumes look more like 2008 than 1908. When Toad dons a puffy winter coat that looks like it was plucked from the rack at REI, something's wrong.

But despite a few hiccups, The Wind in the Willows is an enjoyable romp. Even if you don't know the story, Toad, Mole and Rat will seem like old chums by the evening's end.

The Wind in the Willows runs through January 4, 2014, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for youth, and are available by calling (215) 987-4450 or online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.



Maggie Lakis
Photo by Mark Garvin
In the one-woman show The Twelve Dates of Christmas, Maggie Lakis plays Mary, who turns on her TV on Thanksgiving and spots her fiancé kissing another woman in the crowd at the Macy's parade. Putting her mortification behind her, Mary embarks on a new relationship ... and then another, and then another. Ginna Hoban's play follows Mary from one Christmas season to the next as she searches for Mister Right, adding self-deprecating wisecracks along the way.

There's not much that's surprising about Hoban's play (except for a few curse words which seem out of place in such a sweet show). Mary tells us about awkward dates, a matchmaking aunt who gives humiliating presents (“Whose idea of a gift is clip-on mistletoe?”), and other travails of a modern single woman's life. While there are some nice moments and a few decent jokes, Twelve Dates ... is mostly trite. All the characters (voiced well by Lakis) are familiar archetypes, and Hoban doesn't make any observations about modern love that you haven't heard before. Mary lacks a desperate, neurotic edge that might have made her story more compelling and comical, but Lakis has a winning stage presence that makes her a very agreeable person to spend ninety minutes with. She makes The Twelve Dates of Christmas enjoyable in spite of itself.

Director Tony Braithwaite has overseen some nice pieces of stage business, including Lakis' clever pas de deux with a coat rack.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas runs through December 29, 2013. at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Tickets are $23 - $34, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200 or online at www.Act2.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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