Actors Ashley Byam and Christian Roe in 'The Velveteen Rabbit.' Credit: Angela Sterling
Author Margery Williams wrote "The Velveteen Rabbit (or How Toys Become Real)" in 1922. As with any childhood classic, her themes of identity and transformation, set against the backdrop of a child's love for one cherished toy, are timeless. The story continues to resonate with and enchant readers today, nearly 100 years later.
Seattle Children's Theatre's production of "The Velveteen Rabbit," on stage now through Dec. 30, takes Williams' story and casts the spotlight on that relationship between the child — called The Boy — and a special toy, a beloved stuffed rabbit. The toy rabbit, as described in the book, is "fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen."
Only in this stage play, the rabbit has no ears. It's portrayed by adult human Christian Roe, who sports a muted wardrobe of mustard brown shades, along with a velvet-ish sport coat. Roe wears no rabbit suit and definitely no rabbit ears. While the play's narration explains that he is the Rabbit, the audience is implicitly asked to use its collective imagination to picture the ears and all the characteristics of a toy rabbit.
In fact, many facets of this production ask the audience members to exercise their imagination muscles. In the case of the Rabbit, it wasn't that hard to do, which is a credit to both Roe's physical acting and his chemistry with Ashley Byam, who plays The Boy with a lovely blend of charm and boyish mischief. The two elicited peals of laughter when demonstrating just how much unintended abuse a toy can take from a little boy at bedtime.
It's endearing watching the two bond over childhood imagination games: sailing a boat across the ocean, roasting marshmallows by campfire and climbing a mountain in a blizzard. Many of the characters' interactions use little dialogue, but their friendship and love for each other are effectively evoked by small touches, such as a tender poke on the Rabbit's nose.
The minimalist nature of this production means there are only three principle actors, plus a piano accompanist. While the original story doesn't have that many additional characters, Byam and Peter Crook, who plays The Narrator, do juggle playing secondary characters including the real rabbits that challenge the toy rabbit at one point, as well as The Boy's Nana.
Some portrayals are more effective than others. Laughs ensue when Crook, still in the narrator's gray suit and tie, dons a frilly apron frock and hat and channels his inner Mary Poppins. When they come back to the stage as the real rabbits, however, their wardrobe hasn't changed but they're bouncing on grey exercise balls.
Similarly, the Flower Fairy, the last significant character in the book, isn't portrayed by an actor at all. Instead, her presence is made by an admirable feat of the theater's technical crew.
My son, age 7, knows the story and followed the narrative closely. Others who know the book can likely appreciate and follow the abstractions. Some kids — my 4-year-old daughter included — will not get it all. That's not to say it's not worth bringing your little ones.
The actors' physical comedy and playfulness kept my daughter engaged until the last 10 minutes of the 90-minute experiFence. Just as she started asking “Is it done yet?” the fairy turned the Rabbit into an actual real rabbit. Then, Roe gives the audience a lovely surprise to demonstrate Rabbit's true realness — hooking my daughter right back in.
I won't spoil it for you.
If you go...
When: "The Velveteen Rabbit" plays through Sunday, Dec. 30.
Where: Seattle Children's Theatre at Seattle Center, 201 Thomas St., Seattle
Cost: Adult tickets cost $15–$40 and children's tickets cost $15–$35, depending on day of performance. Thursday performances offer the $15 ticket price. Buy online or stop by the box office to avoid the $4 processing fee. Check website for more information on discounts.
Getting there: The theater is most easily accessed from the west side of Seattle Center. Try street parking or one of the pay lots in the neighborhood, or take transit to Seattle Center.