The Wallis Center for the Performing Arts, in Beverly Hills, always brings us innovative offerings from other parts of the world, mainly Great Britain. And this production is no exception. From Scotland comes the Red Bridge Arts & Traverse Theatre Company’s very unique take on the classic 1877 book Black Beauty, which is one of the all-time top ten best-selling novels for children. (My new YouTube video features parables from my own life on two interesting aspects of this presentation. Here’s the link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDh5rF72Lq4&t=5s.)
Even Mr. X was shocked that not only have I never read the book, but I’ve not seen even one of the film adaptations, either. Who am I?!
So I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to see any version of Black Beauty, but especially this different, fun, light, silly, and very inventive one at my favorite theatre in town. This is the final week-end of its run, so if you want your children to be treated to a show that’s so much more creative than the usual children’s theatre fare, do not miss it! [Photo of the set at the top of this page by Karen Salkin.]
This presentation may have been mistitled, though; the only thing “Black Beauty” about it is the book the two characters discover deep into the narrative!
You have to see it for yourself, because it’s hard to describe, but this play is basically about two men, (brothers both named Andy!,) who perform at events, as a horse. They come upon their old Black Beauty book and act it out for themselves. Or something like that. And there’s a whole lot of tomfoolery involved at every moment, most of which the children in the audience seemed to get. And love!
As a former elementary school teacher, and a totally immature grown-up, (the main reason I haven’t had children is that I do not want to share my crayons–true story,) I tried to see it through their eyes, and got what was going on only about two-thirds of the time. But I have to assume that this company really knows what works for the young ’uns since storytelling like this is their specialty.
At intermission, my friend, who’s a mom, reminded me that kids use their imaginations, which I was relieved to know still happens in this tech-gadget-based world. The characters even say at one point that they play a pretend horse. (That’s when I finally stopped waiting for a real one to appear on stage! Perhaps I’m way too literal. Actually, no “perhaps” about it!)
For me, though, even as a kid, I could not look at a shoe or purse and think of it as a horse! (That kind of imagery happens a lot in this show.) Here’s a tiny tale to illustrate that point: When I was in the fourth grade, I asked the guy who I considered to be my boyfriend (but we had never admitted it) if he had a girlfriend in the class. He said yes, and I told him that he didn’t have to tell me her name, just the row and seat she was in. Of course, he said my row and my seat. But even then I wasn’t sure that it was me! I always need things said straight-out—dot, dash, end of story.
But the kids in the audience really enjoyed it. (It’s best for ages five to twelve, I’d say.) My favorite sound on earth is the laughter of children, so even though I was not with one of my own kid pals for Black Beauty, I loved hearing the rest of them giggle. (In case you’re curious, I do have a second favorite sound—it’s Mr. X’s snoring! So how weird am I?!) I also loved watching some of their faces, most of which were filled with wonder. The whole afternoon was such a happy experience for everyone. (Except for that I think Black Beauty dies at some point. I try not to pay attention when death is involved, no matter how painless.)
And here’s something interesting. At the biggest point of audience participation, when one of the guys walked around the audience with us standing-up being trees, I noticed that the kids’ laughter got louder after that. That little exercise seemed to give them all a burst of energy.
Speaking of energy, this production is a lot of work for the two guys in it, who do everything! They not only act, and ride bikes, and do the horse act, but they constantly add to and subtract from their attire, and move all the props, too! It’s performed by Paul Curley and Andy Manley; the latter wrote it with Andy Cannon, who I have a feeling was in it originally. (Hence, both characters being named “Andy!” Brothers having the same name is one of the topics of my new video that I mentioned earlier. Here’s that link again, in case you erroneously did not click on it the first time!: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDh5rF72Lq4&t=5s.) Since the main Scot I’m aware of is tennis great Andy Murray, and a Scottish guy I met in England many years ago is also Andy, I’m beginning to think that that moniker may be like “John” in America! In this case, they use it as a comedy device, but I always like characters to have very different names, so I can keep them straight.
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention a few of my more grown-up concerns. I have a bit of an issue with children seeing financially-struggling homeless orphans as comedy, but none of the kids I saw it with seemed bothered by those situations. I’m probably just too sensitive. I’ve been labeled an Empath more than a few times in my life.
And I was so confused through most of Act I because the story I was seeing was not that of Black Beauty, which was what I was expecting, but one about two impoverished brothers who do an act where they play a horse, and haven’t worked for over a year. I have a problem with that scenario, as well. These characters are able-bodied men in their thirties or forties—they need to get other jobs, anywhere! It’s not great to make children think that it’s okay to be a lazy bum, (no matter how nice, caring, and charming) while waiting for one’s dreams to come true. But hopefully that real world condition will wash right over them. (I guess we’ll know in about twenty years if this show affected them in that way. I should have taken names!)
Rather than closing the performance with the death of the horse, which is what I had been fearing, the very end is actually a riot. I won’t ruin it for you, but they mention a “modern reimagining” of the tale, which made us all laugh so hard, knowingly for the grown-ups. It’s really the perfect ending for an adventure like this one, after the pathos of the Black Beauty play-within-the-play. It even made me shed a tear, which I was not expecting to do at all!
So how can you go wrong with an entertainment that makes you laugh, and cry a tad, and entertains your kiddos? You cannot. And it all wraps-up in just ninety minutes, which includes an intermission so the children don’t even have to sit for that long in a row.
And by the way—you do not need children to go see it. This version of Black Beauty works for everyone, as long as you’re young at heart.
Black Beauty running week-ends through May 5, 2019
The Wallis—Lovelace Studio Theatre
9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard Beverly Hills 310-746-4000 www.thewallis.org