The Coterie develops a cult following.

A Prairie Home Companion 

The Coterie develops a cult following.

For five years running, The Coterie Theatre has made Laura Ingalls Wilder its regular holiday guest. With productions derived from but never exactly re-creating Wilder's semi-autobiographical series of books, the trend has even created a cult following of sorts. At the opening of the latest installment, Little House on the Prairie, a contingent of young female devotees in period dress, complete with floppy sunbonnets, was in attendance. The Coterie tradition seems to have become Rocky Horror for the kindergarten set, involving them to a point of ecstasy just shy of causing them to shout out retorts and throw corn husks at the Ingalls family.

Laura Ingalls is similar in some ways to Madeline, Eloise, and Dorothy, other classically clean but plucky children's literature heroines who, when confronted with a "Why?" ask, "Why not?" With her equally strong but less beatific sister, Mary, Laura is always up to whatever challenge is thrown in front of her family's dogged path to a better life. A raging stream? Hold on tight. Indians walking in the front door? Invite them to dinner and soak up their idiosyncrasies. The Ingalls girls have adopted their father's bravery and their mother's granite exterior.

Sidonie Garrett directs this latest chapter, which begins in 1870 in Wisconsin. Against a white tarp that hides the eventual log cabin, the Ingallses say adios to their remaining friends and family and board a crude covered wagon (a minimalist creation by the scenery team of Vaughn Schultz and Paige Ahlenius). The journey's hardships are hinted at rather than literally staged before the family's arrival in uncharted Kansas. And it's there that the story's sharp subtext bares its welcome fangs: the vagaries of prejudice -- in this case, against the Indians whose land the Ingallses have tread upon.

Pa Ingalls (Ric Averill) is more level-headed than his wife (Cheryl Weaver), whose anti-Indian stance isn't at all hidden. She tells Laura (Steffi Krull) and Mary (Maggee Steele) not to "yell like Indians" and stay out of the sun lest they become "brown as Indians." She asserts her family's right to settle where they are the minority, promising that the mere presence of white folks will "civilize" the region. It's a not-so-subtle setup designed to continue this familial chain of prejudice, but her daughters don't take to it. "Why don't you like Indians?" Laura asks her mother, whose answer seems rooted more in scary books than any real human contact. Thankfully, Laura's response is not just a nod of understanding but a challenge her parents can't answer: "Then why did we come here?"

Still, Ma Ingalls' irrational fears do get their talons in the audience, and when the first of two Indians (Vernon Quinzy) walks in the Ingalls' front door uninvited, he has been built up -- unfairly yet expertly -- to be such a monster that his entrance produces a chill. His speech is foreign and his manner brusque. Perhaps the biggest affront to Mrs. Ingalls is when he attacks her pan of freshly baked biscuits. His arrogance shocks her, but her daughters are intrigued. A second Indian (Robert Arsante) comes in to make up for his younger friend's bad manners, and Ma's tension palpably lessens. Though she never says it aloud, there is a strong sense that she questions whether her judgments were premature.

Before the quaint Christmas night scene that comes with every Wilder adaptation (the scene where a tin cup and a shiny new penny portend the Toys "R" Us commercialism of the holiday), there's an inspired segment involving actor Shawn Halliday. He portrays Mr. Edwards, a bachelor neighbor who becomes the family's adopted comic foil -- an early Jed Clampett. Halliday's Edwards is a witty simpleton without a trace of condescension, and the young audience eats it up.

The other performers, which include Laura Schwartz and David Saphier as neighbors and members of Garrett's Greek choruslike commentators, don't share Halliday's aura but are nonetheless devoted to servicing Wilder's characters. Art Kent's lighting design floats effortlessly from harsh daylight to the emberlike glow of evening, and David Kiehl's sound design plays audio tricks in animating the family dog, which is otherwise invisible. This ruse leads to bogus scenes of Laura petting the air, but one can forgive not wanting to add a real canine to the mix.

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