Famous for the film adaptation, “Coraline,” is the story of a small but curious little girl who takes advantage of the fact that her parents are workaholics to explore. Once again this story has transformed itself for yet another audience, this time as a musical for the stage. Originally, it was a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. Although the film was well received and nominated for an Oscar, the focus was more on how CGI has improved and what technicians are able to do with it. On stage, the real essence of the story is much more apparent because the audience is in the same room as Coraline. Of course both story lines are the same, but the stage gave actors a chance to be a bit more funny than the movie, and much more up front about teaching moments. “Coraline” is the story of a strong but young protagonist who shows children and reminds adults that with a little bit of logic, any foe can be defeated.
How fitting then that this childish play with grown-up themes is performed in a playhouse. Tucked away on the second floor of a fairly plain looking building on Sutter Street, up steep carpeted and semi-uneven steps, and round the corner is a stage and a theater that seats no more than a hundred in velvet red chairs. SF Playhouse is a quaint and adaptable little venue that makes you feel as though you’ve just walked into a child’s makeshift theater, except that it’s equipped with professional lighting.
“Coraline” and the playhouse seemed made by children and for children. Everything from props, to costumes, to sets had touches of creativity infused with simplicity. For instance, after the Other Mother locks Coraline inside a mirror, three child ghosts visit her. The ghosts were depicted as three glass heads painted with eyes, noses, and lips, each fixed on top of a wooden rod and hanger, and dressed with children’s pajamas. Behind each ghost was an adult actor who also spoke for each ghost. Even though the audience is not supposed to ignore the actors holding the ghosts, somehow it did not break the fourth wall of the stage. In other words, for this particular play, it was natural.
Another creative set decision was in how to depict Other Mother falling down a well one mile deep to her death. Instead of slicing a hole into the floor and lowering her down, two actors raised the lip of the well to expose the black gauze underneath. The effect was Other Mother cloaked in black, buttons covering her eyes, singing behind the cage of black gauze that encircled her. Although she did not fall anywhere, it didn’t matter because the point was made that Other Mother was dying and her power over Coraline was over.
However, it wouldn’t be an accurate description of the musical without mentioning the epitome of creepy and skin crawling material when Other Mother’s hand attacked Coraline. At the height of it’s size and power, the hand with painted red pointy fingernails was about five feet long and had to be mounted on an actor’s back as he directed it around like an enormous spider on a puppet string. The hand was off putting to me, and I’m old enough to know it’s not real.
As far as actual acting talent goes, a round of applause is in order. The parents were well played. Just the right amount of creepy growing ever stronger in increments, just as the right hand of Other Mother grew more and more gruesome as the story went on. Perhaps nothing was more perfect a characterization than when Other Mother half shrieked “I like games!” in a demented tone of voice.
Other Father did a very good job at showing his despair at being trapped and manipulated by Other Mother. I didn’t doubt it at all! The cat was decent but I couldn’t quite get into his character because the costume did not look much like a cat except for some ears on his hat. Coraline, played by Maya Donato, was a valiant little thing! She put her force behind all her songs and wasn’t a bit dominated by all the adult actors on stage. All in all, the seven actors gave a worthy performance of about fourteen total roles.
Even though “Coraline” is a children’s story, there is a great deal adults can learn from revisiting it. Coraline shows us that magic and myths are interesting tales, but logic can get a girl–or boy, or man, or woman–through anything. She is the modern day example of the idea that if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you’ll be OK, even in the scariest situations.
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