Theater review: SCT's The Borrowers

BorrowersSensitive, adventurous Arietty Clock longs to see the world beyond the confines of her parents’ cramped apartment in The Borrowers, the first offering of the 2010-11 season at Seattle Children’s Theatre.  It’s a story that will resonate with kids on the cusp of tween- and teenhood: She loves her parents fiercely and needs their support, but wants a way of life different than theirs and is beginning to understand what that might mean.

The production, directed by Rita Giomi, achieves the neat trick of constructing a world that is at once magical and mundane. The Clocks are Borrowers, tiny people who live under the floorboards of a human house and live by “borrowing” (not stealing!) human possessions.  They’re acquisitive and status-conscious, even as their house is furnished with a cork as a stool and clothespins as bedposts. The parents explain the world outside to their daughter in a conversation that brings to mind a human parent’s awkward Birds & Bees talk. But if disaster strikes and they’re discovered, they’ll be forced to “emigrate” – a race for their lives out of the comfortable life they’ve known and into the surrounding fields, where they could fall prey to animals and may or may not find lost family members who emigrated years before.

Cary’s Wong’s sets are gorgeous – make sure the kids take a close look at the intricately imagined Clock apartment, in which a postage stamp doubles as a wall hanging and a table is fashioned out of a chess piece. By contrast, he merely hints at the outdoors with huge, stylized thistles and poppies that suggest fields and a wide-open sky. The show makes extensive use of puppets (by Annett Mateo), including a giant, eerily lifelike crow that’s as menacing as a movie velociraptor.

The SCT production team’s elegant solutions to technical problems are continually amazing: On one stage, a human boy pries up a floorboard and sticks a screwdriver into the Clocks’ apartment, while on center stage, a giant screwdriver pokes through the ceiling and terrifies the family. Humans stomp their feet on the floor on the same stage, and the Clocks look upward on another stage to see dust sifting down through the floorboards. The timing is perfect, and the two stages allow action in the human and Borrow world to unfold simultaneously.

Emily Chisholm as Arietty carries the production flawlessly with a mix of childlike wonder and adult self-awareness.  Chris Ensweiler is especially affecting as Dreadful Spiller, a feral Borrower boy with great survival skills and few words.  The narrow-minded Mrs. Driver (Zoaunne LeRoy) is all crust and bluster, and she gets to deliver some of the play’s best laugh lines. Mrs. and Mrs. Clock (Ian Bell and Marianne Owen) move from twittering domesticity (they air-kiss goodnight) to real strength and resilience as the play progresses.

The script (adapted by Charles Way from the children's books by Mary Norton) is less funny-clever than past SCT productions, relying instead on gentle humor and Arietty’s poetic narrated diary entries. Both boys and girls will love the show's deft mix of action (fight scenes! menacing animals!) and cozy domestic scenes, tied together by a strong girl protagonist. Borrow a kid -- if you need to -- and go see it.

The Borrows runs through Oct. 31 at Seattle Children’s Theatre. Tickets are $22-$37 for adults, $15-$31 for children. The theater recommends this show for ages 8 and older, and rightfully so; it’s for kids who can follow a story with multiple plot elements and a verbally sophisticated script.

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