What is real and what isn’t real is a question posed by the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre’s production of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which opened Friday night at the Hope Martin Theater in Waterloo.
This question is frequently posed by the title character, played by an adorable, charming and deeply moving Zoey Thune. The poor toy cannot move when a button is pushed or a switch is flipped, unlike the train (Logan Hewitt) and the boat (Maya Buchanan). The toy rabbit can’t leap like the real rabbits (Madison Chidester, Madi Arend, Katie Klingfus). But the six-year-old boy that is the owner of the simply plaything, Steve (Cain Hendrickson), loves the velveteen rabbit and views it as his friend, which, according to the rocking horse (Luke Everhardt), makes toys real.
This magnificent production, directed by Tyler Hayes Stillwill, is undeniably real and human. It has been given the attention and affection that it deserves, causing it to work a rare magic that reminds avid theatergoers why they fell in love with the theater in the first place.
This is aided by Stillwill’s performance as the older version of Steve. He stands near the proscenium, narrating, commenting on what’s occurring on stage. He explains that he’s an adult, but when telling the story, he has the attitude and feelings of a child.
“I felt alone,” he remarks at one point in the show. “Have you ever felt like that?” he says to the audience.
“No,” replied a young audience member at the performance I attended.
Stillwill smiled and then said, “Well, I did.”
The action occurring behind him is skillfully done. Young Steve is the typical six-year-old with a brimming imagination. He looks up to his older brother, Ben (Tynan Montover), and we can’t blame him. His brother is athletic, bigger and tougher. Yet he cares about the younger brother, doing various things to show this, including pretending the two are on a ship when Steve is frightened one night.
The toys are stationary when the humans are in Steve’s room, save for Everhardt who fidgets. When Hendrickson moves Thune to set the dinner table for him, she moves limply in a very realistic way. When the toys are alone, the battery powered toys tease the rabbit, who defiantly tells them that it is real.
And the rabbit is. Thune is not just adorable, but she makes us constantly feel sorry for the rabbit and cheer for its triumph. Despite the costume that covers most of her and Brad Brist’s dark yet subtle lighting, her delivery of the lines and her body language make the rabbit real in a manner that does not require the magic the rocking horse talks about.
Hendrickson gives an equally stunning performance. His interaction with Montover and the actors playing the toys is authentic and vivid. This causes the end, a scene between him and Thune, to be a horrible tragedy.
The production is finely accented by Geoff Ehrendreich’s imaginative set, Brist’s lighting and Danielle Warnke’s delightful costumes. The main set piece is a four-poster bed that has been painted red, yellow, green purple and blue and is covered with purple, green and blue drapes. This works well in the scene where the two brothers are pretending that they are on a boat. A post is moved back, a lid of what looks like a toy chest is lifted and a blue wheel is removed and attached to the lid.
If anything, the set, lighting and costumes give the show a pop-up book feel. The bed is turned around and it’s the outside of the house. Some lights are raised and a backdrop of trees for the forest is revealed. The boat, train and rocking horse have three-dimensional costumes, while the fairy (Linda Stamp) comes ringing down the aisle–which I was sitting on–in a large wig with white Christmas tree lights strung through it and wearing a green gown that has old toys sewn all over it.
At the beginning of the show, older Steve tells us that this is his play, a point he reaffirms to Ben in Act Two.
Indeed it is, but the magic of the play touches every audience member in the theater.
(The Velveteen Rabbit runs through March 8 at the Hope Martin Theater in the Waterloo Center for the Arts. The performance is at 2 p.m. The performance is about 40 minutes long with a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets are $10 for students and adults and are available at the box office, by calling 291-4494 or by visiting their website, wcpbhct.org.)