The best tales for young people tend to be those that aren’t specifically aimed at (or pitched down to) them, stories that capture some of the eerie fairytale essence that runs like a subterranean river through the texture of childhood: the creepy things that wait around unseen corners, the love and the fear, the shining unexpected beauty in things.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Scarecrow and His Servant is a well-honed if busy story about the titular scarer of crows and his journey with young Jack (Brandon Brooks) against back luck, a small army, and straw-stuffed fecklessness that manages to touch, at one time or another, on themes of childhood abandonment, environmental degradation, judicial manipulation, and quixotic love for a broomstick in the course of its two hours with intermission.
Good news first: Dean Holt’s Scarecrow is a marvel, a captivating performance for an audience member of any age. Working throughout the show on short stilts, Holt combines athletic physicality with an expressive range that provides welcome cohesion and, improbably enough, a fleshed-out portrayal of a quasi-supernatural character brought to life by lightning to wander the world until his sideways triumph (he’s Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner meets Frankenstein’s monster). Gerald Drake as the vile poison peddler Cercorelli is another weird delight, all long fingers and oily sneer.
And the production itself, directed by Peter C. Brosius, is an impressive assembly of moving parts—the settings include multiple farm fields, a battlefield, a courtroom, a desert island, and a theater for an antic play-within-a-play. As an achievement in storytelling ingenuity, it’s basically virtuosic in scope and practical achievement.
So why, then, did stretches of the first act seem so leaden, and emotional investment in the main characters so hard to maintain beyond fleeting sequences? It could well be the sheer volume of material crammed into Hatcher’s script, with a density of storytelling that could be as vivid and exciting on the page as it is exhausting, and even confusing, to watch.
Hatcher is one of our favorite playwrights for well-earned reasons—and here his subversive wit, somehow strychnine and earnest in the same moment, is on evident display. As is Brosius’s restless invention and ambition, his constitutional unwillingness to cut corners as a director in favor of risk and discovery. And yet the whole feels less than the sum of its parts—indeed, a sense of alchemy between writer and director feels as though it doesn’t materialize.
Of course children, and their older counterparts, will leave talking about Holt’s electric portrayal, Drake’s villain, and Brooks’s antic sidekick. Aside from a couple of memorable vignettes, though, they probably won’t be talking about the story—the show somehow elbows that narrative immediacy to the side, missing the mark by a relatively small but ultimately significant measure.