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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bunnicula vs. The Library Dragon

click to enlarge BOOKWYRM: Enoch King, Gracie McBride, Kara Cantrell, Denise Arribas
  • BOOKWYRM: Enoch King, Gracie McBride, Kara Cantrell, Denise Arribas

In the tradition of King Kong vs. Godzilla -- or maybe "Bambi Meets Godzilla" -- comes a battle royale between the monsters of plays for Atlanta families. On one side, Bunnicula, Synchronicity Theatre's vampiric rabbit whose fluffy fur and snuggly manner belies his occult powers and unslakable thirsts. In the other corner, The Library Dragon, Theatre in the Square's wicked reptile turned librarian, capable of scorching books and readers alike with her fiery breath. Both are remounts of popular shows based on children's books, but only one emerges as a champion for grown-ups as well as tots.

Both plays run through Oct. 18, and both set their cute creatures loose in placid surroundings. In The Library Dragon, Sunrise Elementary School hires Lotta Scales (Kara Cantrell) to run the library, unaware that she’s a bespectacled monster who zealously guards books like an old-school dragon protects its treasure-hoard. In Bunnicula, an ordinary family finds a cute if oversized rabbit and brings it home, unaware of its Transylvanian origins.

The Library Dragon and Bunnicula both prove to be wonderfully designed shows. Joanna M. Schmink and Lindsey Paris craft a charmingly cartoonly costume for the title character, and leave a gap in its neck for Cantrell’s face to peep through, so kids won’t be scared: children stick their tongues out at this monster, rather than cringe from her. Rochelle Barker’s splendid Bunnicula set looks like something out of Beetlejuice-era Tim Burton – a suburban living room with an ominous black-and-white color scheme, so it looks both mundane and spooky. Other neat touches include the children’s rain slickers, which look like vampire necks, and the way Bunnicula (a puppet operated by Amy Rush) has glowing red eyes.

My daughter loves the Bunnicula series, but the funny thing about James Howe’s books is that the title character does practically nothing: most of the action unfolds between the other household pets, amiable dog Harold (Jimi Kocina) and suspicious cat Chester (identified as “he,” even though played by Erin Lorette). Kocina and Lorette do I nice job with their Odd Couple-style bickering and confusion over vampire lore, which include mistaking a “stake” for a “steak.” Jon Klein’s adaptation transfers the material from middle America to England, which nicely suits the dark-and-stormy-night setting and the music hall song and dance styles. At one point the witty lyrics manage to rhyme “human” and “acumen.” Overall, Bunnicula affirms Synchronicity's expertise at crafting kid's shows engaging enough to entertain grown-ups.

Cantrell gets a couple of lively musical numbers in The Library Dragon, and Carmen Agra Deedy (adapting her own book) cleverly includes the titles of famous children’s books in several of them. Eventually a lovable young bookworm (Gracie McBride) teaches Lotta Scales the value of sharing books, but though the dragon makes a lively antagonist, the play only slowly builds up narrative momentum. Scenes feel hindered by excessive exposition and adults are much more likely to fidget in their seats.

In The Library Dragon vs. Bunnicula match-up, the Transylvanian rabbit prevails against the reptilian librarian. A bunny beats a dragon? It sounds like something out of Monty Python.

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