As the holidays approach it’s the time of year where we start to examine traditions. Things done in the family that celebrate the spirit of the season and help keep the memory of loved ones with us all year through. The Montgomery Playhouse presents Aurand Harris’ The Arkansaw Bear as a part of their season, a great way for young audiences to look at celebrating life and tradition even during the rough stuff that happens in life. Directed by David Dossey, this fairytale leans toward the sadder side of the spectrum but comes engrained with a brilliant life learning lesson that is valuable to audiences of all ages.
The sets are simple and the costumes are defined mostly by The Greatest Dancing Bear‘s many hats, thus focusing on what’s important – the story that unfolds. Little Tish does not want her grandfather to die; he is old and his heart is tired and it is his time but that does not make it easy for little Tish. So she makes a wish on the first evening star to help her understand why Grandpa has to die. In doing so, the evening star grants her a magical encounter with the world’s Greatest Dancing Bear, whose heart is also tired and he is very old. He is running from The Ringmaster (Matthew Datcher) who will take him to the Great Ring when he dies. Interacting with the Greatest Dancing Bear helps teach Tish a valuable lesson; carrying on a tradition of the loved one you’re losing helps keep them with you always.
It is a touching and sentimental story with a positive outlook on the rough patches that we all must endure throughout our lives. The format is perfect for children ages 5 and older. The actors are greatly involved with their characters in an attempt to really relate directly to the younger audiences. Tish (Alex Petes) is exactly as a child would be when first encountering death; confused and angry and upset. She speaks clearly and slowly so that you can understand all of her frustration and she soldiers on with the message of the story like a trooper at the end.
Those that she encounters along the way are what really make the story entertaining. The Greatest Dancing Bear (Ray Converse) is uproarious as he scrambles about trying to hide from death. Converse wears many hats throughout the production, each one significant of a dance or important moment in his life. He is warm and friendly and helps translate that children aren’t the only ones who are afraid of death— and that he is afraid because he is afraid he and all his magnificent dances will be forgotten.
Alongside the bear is his best friend the Mime (Trish Weller). With exuberant facial expressions Weller does a superb job of translating emotions and funny situations without ever uttering a word. She engages the audience in the scene by using her wide eyes and large body gestures to keep them involved when the others are scurrying about.
With the same excitable energy as the mime, Star Bright (Jimmy Santos) is a flashy addition to the cast. Appearing as the first evening star that Tish makes a wish upon, in his cosmos planetary shirt, Santos is clearly a performer designed for children’s theatre. His gestures and actions are done slow and large so to really captivate the attention of the younger audience members. His dazzling smile and funny speech patterns — like those of an observant star — really make him shine in this production.
Keeping up with the energy trend is Young Bear (Trevin Talley). He’s a youth just like Tish, bouncing around carefree never having to worry about anything until he encounters The World’s Greatest Dancing Bear. He is bestowed the honor of learning all of the great dances so that the old bear will not be forgotten. Talley’s story parallels that of Tish’s — she learns to play the kazoo as her grandfather did so that he too will not be forgotten. Talley is a breath of fresh life in the production, just filled with a jovial and playful nature that translates well into his character.
Although it may be a difficult subject matter to handle for children, The Arkansaw Bear is a great way to approach it and it teaches children a valuable lesson.
Running Time: 45 minutes, with no intermission.
The Arkansaw Bear plays Saturday and Sunday matinees through December 23, 2012 at The Arts Barn located in Trevin Talley – 311 Kent Square in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 258-6394, or purchase them online.