As a sentient scarecrow with an attitude right out of Candide, Dean Holt has found the perfect showcase for his talents in the latest from the Children's Theatre Company.
The Scarecrow and His Servant brings Holt's character to life in a bit of theatrical magic: A cobbled-together scarecrow, while sitting out in a thunderstorm, comes alive as the titular Scarecrow. To give his hay-man additional size, Holt performs — to full effect — on stilts throughout the show.
But while Holt's performance is the primary attraction in this world-premiere adaptation, the whole production offers plenty of delights, including rousing performances from the rest of the company and the mad set and costume designs of G.W. Mercier.
Prolific local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher adapted the play from Philip Pullman's fanciful book of the same name. The adaptation and the production retain the essential charm and drive of the original tale, as it explores questions of loyalty and friendship. It also retains some of the story's original darkness, as agents of an evil, land-gobbling corporation pursue our heroes.
Jolted to life by a bolt of lightning, the Scarecrow almost immediately meets up with Jack — played with great depth by rising teen actor Brandon Brooks — a hungry boy who has been separated from his home by endless wars that have ravaged the bucolic countryside.
The two team up — technically, Jack is employed as the Scarecrow's unpaid servant — in an attempt to get the Scarecrow back to his original home. Dogging their heels are the aforementioned agents of the Buffaloni family, led by the black-clad Cercorelli (Gerald Drake).
This chase affords our heroes plenty of adventures as they manage to stay a step (or less) ahead of their pursuers. Jack, a character much wiser than his years, is in constant fear of being caught. The Scarecrow, like the heroes of Candide, is largely oblivious to what is right behind him. Instead, he works to free birds from captivity (he calls them "prisoners of war"), takes a part in a play (finding his love along the way), and engages in a little game of war (his turnip brain makes him perfect for an officer).
For all its silliness, there is a dark edge to the story, by way of constant warfare and industrial pollution. Be prepared to answer questions about the failures of the legal system in the face of big business on the way home.
This complexity gives the creative team a chance to really let loose their imaginations. Mercier's sets are vibrant, colorful, and fanciful, perfectly matching the tone of the story. The same can be said of his costumes, which bring all manner of odd creatures and people to life, all the while embracing the story's Italian roots. The exaggerated costumes go far beyond Holt's piecework look. Drake's Cercorelli dresses as any respectable villain should: in a black velvet suit and shiny black boots. But there is more here than dark clothing. The long toes of his boots jut out, as do his chin and nose, while his hair is sculpted into an extreme peak. All of this makes him very crow-like — a perfect foil for a scarecrow.
Drake, a 40-year veteran of CTC who has played plenty of congenial characters in recent years, really digs into being the villain, coming up with a performance to scare the little ones (and the big ones, too). The balance of the company does good work as well, with the likes of Reed Sigmund and Autumn Ness excelling in a variety of roles. And Brooks, who has become a mainstay at CTC in recent years even though he is barely old enough to drive, proves that while the Scarecrow may be the center of attention, Jack is the real heart of the story. Brooks shows both the hurt and heartbreak in his character — and the immense strength that allows him to go on in the most extreme circumstances.