“Ooh, it’s dark in here now,” the small, awe-filled voice said from deep in the shadows of the Boardmore Playhouse.
The lights had just gone down at the start of the Tuesday morning school performance of the Cape Breton University Dramagroup’s spring children’s show, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. I sat in the performance along with students from Glace Bay Elementary, Sydney’s Brookland School, and Donkin/Gowrie. This production continues with school performances until Friday. After that, Jacob… has two public performances on Saturday, May 15, at 7pm, and Sunday, May 16, at 2pm. All performances are in the CBU Boardmore Playhouse.
The play is based on the first book of the popular series by legendary Montreal writer, Mordecai Richler, which has also been the source for two feature films and an animated television series.
Jacob is the youngest of a blended family with two older brothers and two older sisters. He also has two arms, two legs, two eyes and has to say everything twice to be heard above the din of normal family life. Appreciating Jacob’s efforts to master the mature arts of bread slicing and shoe tying, his dad sends him on an important errand to get two pounds of tomatoes. The grocer, mistaking Jacob’s habit of iteration for backsass, jokingly calls a policeman but Jacob, genuinely frightened, runs away, gets lost behind the locked gates of a park, and has a dream about being condemned to an island prison for children who were rude to big people for two years, two months, two weeks, two days, two hours, two minutes, and two seconds.
Despite the harshness of the sentence after a “guilty till proven innocent” justice system, Jacob finds himself at the mercy of the dreaded Hooded Fang, and not the Hooded Harper. With the help of his fellow young prisoners, and the somewhat questionable assistance of Childpower superheroes, the Fearless O’Toole and the Intrepid Shapiro, Jacob stands up to injustice and the very scary Hooded Fang.
This production benefits greatly from its energetic group of small people and big people. Connor Charron, as Jacob, has great stage presence and a pleasant singing voice and is a young actor a young audience can immediately identify with.
Brent Wareham, who as the Hooded Fang made a late appearance in the play, quickly and definitively established the menace and meanie-osity of his character and just as quickly and definitively won the audience over at the play’s end when he shows his caring and nice-etude.
As Jacob’s brothers and sisters, Malcolm Hiscock, David Hutchinson, Ainslie Pierrynowski, and Seanna Wells-Blagdon were all older sibling annoyance and superiority. Hutchinson was especially fun as Louie the loser Lawyer and the creepy Mr. Fox, one of Jacob’s diabolical prison guards.
Aaron Corbett and Lindsay Thompson did double duty as Jacob’s harried parents and Master Fish and Mistress Fowl, two of the meanie wardens at the prison. Both were funny and assured in each of their roles. Thompson distinguished herself with her singing.
George MacKenzie was great as the put upon grocer (with just enough of a comic accent to make him funny and not a cartoon) and as Artie Octopus, a Rastafarian denizen of the prison who does a reggae flavoured tune designed to creep out anyone. Sajiv Kochhar did some his finest comedic work to date as the rhyming and rapping Justice Rough. Bruce Cathcart was excellent, as usual, as the police officer who chases Jacob and the ominous bailiff handing out rough justice for Justice Rough.
And the many young performers who played, what are essentially, all their moments to shine, which they did wonderfully. For the record here they are: The Slimers (who made a great girl back up band for Artie Octopus): Margaret MacPherson, Sarah Ferguson, Rebecca Connors, Ainslie Pierrynowski, and Megan MacArthur; Prisoners: Chrissy Smith, Maddy MacPherson, Stephanie MacIntosh, Emma Droan, Jase Kochhar, Leah Gillespie, Chloe MacKinnon, Maggie Jennings, Gracie Lee Wareham, and Minuet Charron. They also did double duty as the jury in Justice Rough’s courtroom.
My few criticisms could be said about most young performers: a few times they needed to be bigger, quicker, and louder. Also, and this a tough thing for any actor of any age, they might have listened better and reacted more to what the other actors were doing onstage. The Hooded Fang’s career as a wrestler was ended because everyone stopped thinking he was scary: if someone onstage is trying to be scary and the person who is supposed to be scared doesn’t acted scared, then the audience will not be scared. But these are things one learns as one performs more.
It helps to have a director like Todd Hiscock running things. Hiscock kept the pace snappy (although I know he has already told them it could have been snappier), and he created lots of movement and physical comedy that works for kids and adults. Sometimes he had to maneuver a large number of people in a confined space but everyone knew where they were going and nothing ever felt muddled or purposeless.
Bruce Cathcart’s multi-purpose set went from being a family home, to a street, to a park, to an infernal courtroom, to Fog Island, and with a minimal addition of a set piece or two (with some help from Ken Heaton’s lighting design), the audience felt they were in each of these locations. Barb Longva’s costumes were fun: colourful masks complemented the fantasy elements of each character, especially the Mexican wrestler themed prison guards.
Richler’s clever wordplay and outrage against arbitrary authoritarian abuse livens the script with enough rough and tumble fun for the kids and thoughtful commentary about the unfairness of childhood for their parents. The songs by poet Dennis Lee and Philip Balsam were bouncy enough, and some of their lyrics were inventive (Lee is an accomplished serious poet), but none of them were particularly memorable and often seemed like pleasant diversions from the story instead of helping it along. Spirited individual performances, like those of Hutchinson and MacKenzie, (as well as arrangements by Carol Anne MacDougall and MacKenzie) did more to pump juice into the songs than the composers.
That said, Jacob Two-Two is a fun, lively, relentlessly entertaining show. I enjoyed watching the young audience get swept into the plight of its hero and become rapt in the immediacy of a live theatrical performance, unaided by computer effects or a committee written pop dirge belted out by an American Idol third place runner up. And that can only be a good thing.