Imaginative British director Greg Banks has built his reputation in the Twin Cities by doing immersive promenade-style productions of classics. His métier, which includes using small casts to tell big stories, helps to make troublesome historic pieces such as “Huck Finn,” which he staged at Children’s Theatre a few seasons ago, more affordable to produce and more in harmony with contemporary mores.
Banks strips out the colonial overtones in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” which opened Friday in Minneapolis. Although highly energetic, it is not a promenade-style show. Banks has digested two of Kipling’s fables, which were published in 1894 while Queen Victoria ruled Britannia, to their essence. These are coming-of-age tales informed by ancient myths, including the story of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who were suckled by a she-wolf.
In “The Jungle Book,” Mowgli (Eric Sharp), a child who is called a “man cub” by the creatures of the forest, is raised by wolves and by Baloo the sloth bear (H. Adam Harris) and Bagheera the black panther (Autumn Ness). They protect this human innocent as best they can from Shere Khan (Casey Hoekstra), the hungry tiger who wants to eat Mowgli. But when some monkeys trick Mowgli and imprison him in an echo-y well, vultures carry the news to his would-be rescuers, including the hypnotizing python Kaa (Nastacia Nicole).
A sense of tense adventure colors Bank’s engaging “Jungle,” which takes place on designer Joe Stanley’s multitiered jungle gym set with its hanging ropes that invite play. The action is animated by composer Victor Zupanc’s mood-setting music and Nancy Schertler’s transporting lighting design. The whole thing plays out with heightened mystery.
The playfulness is particularly pronounced with the five-person cast, all of whom, with the exception of Sharp, cover three or four roles.
Sharp’s Mowgli has an open-faced innocence. That trait, which Mowgli will lose when he comes of age, helps him as he unknowingly (and repeatedly) enters into harm’s way. Sharp nails Mowgli’s lack of knowledge and guile, and his performance is so cute and accessible that the youngsters in the audience want to help him be safe.
If Sharp’s Mowgli is the calm eye of the storm, the quartet around him works with frenetic energy as they change roles and demeanors.
Harris’ Baloo is a bighearted innocent himself who would rather rest than engage the other creatures. But he gets excited to help the youngster, and he even does a graceful cartwheel, which is saying something given the actor’s size. Harris also plays genial Father Wolf and a monkey, investing each with dignity and majesty.
Ness’ Bagheera shows more claws, but the actor also gives us a character whose ferocity is necessary. She has to protect her turf and her reputation. Ness also imbues a monkey with a giddy spirit and makes her vulture fancifully flighty. Nicole’s Kaa is a snake with the power to stop creatures in their tracks, and a similar thing could be said about the actor’s performance. She shows her character’s focus, charm and allure in hypnotic dance.
Hoekstra has the most fun as Shere Khan, the ravenous tiger who carries a longing for Mowgli meat all his life. He crouches and snarls like a real feline, bringing a feral energy to this handsome predator.
In the end, “Jungle” is a heartwarming work about a humanlike community that rears a boy, and then must let him go. It also shows that problematic texts, which are plentiful, can be updated for the 21st century.