Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Borrowers and The Tempest

Bi Jean Ngo
Photo: Leigh Goldenberg
The Arden Theatre's family show for the holiday season is The Borrowers, an adaptation of Mary Norton's books about tiny people (less than five inches tall) who live lives unobserved by normal-sized humans. The Arden's production, adapted for the stage by Charles Way, is a pleasant show that kids are sure to enjoy. It's not exceptional, but it's a nice diversion on a cold winter day.

Borrowers get their name because they sustain their lives by "borrowing" goods from normal-sized humans. Mr. and Mrs. Clock and their daughter Arrietty are a family of Borrowers who live beneath the floorboards of a big country house in Victorian England. Arrietty is thirteen years old and curious about the outside world. She strikes up a friendship with a normal-sized boy living in the house, but when grownups find out that Borrowers are living in their house, the Clocks are forced to flee to the outside world. There they must contend with birds and bugs—things that are no problem for humans but could be fatal to a Borrower.

Lewis Folden's set design plays up the size differences between humans and Borrowers by having the Borrowers living amid oversized pencils and matchboxes. When the two groups interact, it's with puppets designed to resemble the actors (designed by Aaron Cromie with the same great wit he brought to another children's show, The BFG, a few seasons back). There are good special effects (one great sight gag involves a screwdriver that appears enormous to the Borrowers), and there are some sharp performances: Bi Jean Ngo is exuberant and convincingly childlike (but not childish) as Arrietty; Catharine K. Slusar has fun as the mother who is brought low when she is forced to fend for herself; and Steve Pacek brings broad, loopy charm to a series of offbeat supporting roles, including a long-haired wild man named "Dreadful Spiller."

Despite all the skill evident onstage, however, The Borrowers doesn't approach the heights hit by last season's children's shows at the Arden, Peter Pan and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (the latter of which, like The Borrowers, was directed by Whit MacLaughlin). Those shows were exceptional, one with lots of heart and the other with lots of laughs; this show doesn't overwhelm the way they did, so it's unlikely to be cherished in memory the way they are. The Clocks are a sweet and lovable family, but there's little suspense or drama in their plight. As a result, it's easy to appreciate The Borrowers but hard to get involved with it.

Still, MacLaughlin's production tells its story very well. It's full of clever stagecraft and terrific performances, and kids are bound to appreciate it.

The Borrowers runs through January 30, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $16 to $32 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Sarah Doherty and Dan Kern
Photo: Bill D'Agostino
The Tempest is about magic, both the spiritual kind and the romantic kind. Harriet Power's production at Act II Playhouse in Ambler makes its own kind of magic. It's a handsome but generally low-key production that allows each member of its small cast (seven actors) a chance to shine.

Shakespeare's tale opens with a storm at sea, and Power's production creates that storm impressively, with lights, sound effects and video creating a mighty simulation. Once the storm ends, the scene changes to a remote, mystical island; scenic designer Dirk Durossette's island set is full of bowed woodwork which simulates the hull of a ship. Multiple platforms and spare decoration make the island seem nearly deserted, but it's all done by the power of suggestion.

The wizard Prospero, ruler of the island, is not a noble hero. He's cruel and vindictive, not always using his magical powers for good. He's also the owner of a slave, the lumbering beast Caliban. But as portrayed by the imposing Dan Kern, Prospero seems wise and concerned, always guided by the power of his certainty. Sarah Doherty is a whirling, winning delight as Ariel, the impish spirit who carries out Prospero's wishes in her own way. Nicole Erb is refreshing and natural as Prospero's daughter Miranda, angry one moment and playful the next, while Griffin Stanton-Ameisen gracefully matches up with her as her lover Sebastian. Tom Byrn makes Caliban a sympathetic object of pity. And several of the actors double as members of the royal party shipwrecked on the island; each character in this contingent stands out as a well-defined personality, which isn't always true in productions of The Tempest.

There's some good comedy from Rob Kahn and David Ingram as a pair of drunken servants; Ingram even emulates Charlie Chaplin by wearing baggy pants and a derby (Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind designed the costumes). And when Miranda and Sebastian get engaged, Power stages their celebration as a whimsical puppet show, complete with quotes from Romeo and Juliet—a welcome comic touch.

Power's production is light and breezy when it needs to be, but doesn't shy away from the tough conflicts that make up the heart of the drama. That helps make this Tempest quite satisfactory.

The Tempest runs through December 19, 2010, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $27 to $33and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, online at or in person at the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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