Yale Children’s Theatre
(New Haven, CT) December 1998 University
YCT takes on Jekyll-and-Hyde African folktale
By Ann Ritter
According to African legend, within each human being there are two separate selves: a wholly good self and a wholly bad self. The two halves are constantly in flux, warring with each other for the larger share of whatever soul they're occupying. Good people are those who are able to subdue and control their bad half, whereas bad people are those who have allowed their bad half to get out of control. In this production of Once Upon a Time and Far, Far Away..., the Yale Children's Theater offers a highly accessible and entertaining fable about good, evil, and the duality of the soul.
A synthesis of three traditional South African fables, the play is adapted from Jack Stokes' The Incredible Jungle Journey of Fenda Maria. The play opens with a flashback, as the son of the village chief (Thad Novak, BK '02) wanders into the evil forest on the outskirts of town. He is confronted by Takaya, a wicked witch with a nasal voice (Joni Kletter, TC '01). Because his two selves are, unfortunately, having a very bad day, the witch is able to divide him into two separate people: an entirely noble one and an entirely cowardly and foolish one. The good self is cursed to eternal sleep unless a noble woman can work her way through the forest of bad dreams and wake him by crying 12 jars of tears and reciting a chant. Because stupidity just can't keep to itself, the bad self runs off to wreak havoc in the neighboring towns and villages.
The chief of the village (Robert Levels, ES '99) becomes weak and full of despair when he hears the news of his son's transformation. He turns old and frail but refuses to die until someone brave enough is chosen to walk through the forest in order to save his son. This someone is a young village woman named Fenda Maria (played with solid, quiet dignity by Autumn Allen, MC '99), who accepts her calling and begins a long and painful journey. Most of the journey's pain comes from Takaya and her band of hags, as they use everything in their power to break Fenda Maria's spirit. She is, of course, too strong to be brought down by such petty evil and emerges victorious in the end.
As with most Children's Theater productions, the sets and costumes are sparse and simple, but also sincere and heartfelt. The modest dimensions of the Park Street space provide an intimate, informal atmosphere and allow for even-handed audience participation.
Although the work itself is a bit more serious than some of the Children's Theater past productions, the company doesn't allow itself to get weighed down in the drama of the fable. Director Brooke Richie, ES '99, does a good job of balancing the seriousness and the humor, ably backed up by a strong cast.
Kletter is especially hilarious as the wicked witch, giving a remarkably nuanced and textured performance, strengthened by an absurd, evil-sounding accent. Camar Graves, BK '01, is also well-suited to play the story's laid-back, wise-cracking narrator. The whole cast is sincerely enthusiastic, and Pakov Hang, MC '99, and local eighth grader Yael Dadoun stand out in their smaller roles.
The show lacks some of the manic energy that often defines Children's Theater productions, but that's due primarily to the somewhat unusual (and more dramatic) nature of the work. It's a rarity to get a chance to watch and interact with a performance of a traditional South African folktale. Don't disregard the performance because of its outward simplicity--the moral of this story is that sometimes, the simplest lessons are the most important.