Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Lion King vs. the ancient Greeks

Through great generosity on the part of my in-laws, this past week I got to go see The Lion King with Tracy and Noah. Noah just turned 8 years old and is the perfect age for the show. I'd heard a lot about the show over the years, and though I've always been a bit skeptical about the idea of adapting a cartoon movie into a Broadway show, I went eagerly anticipating Julie Taymor's highly theatrical staging.

Even having some idea of what to expect, I was still thoroughly impressed and enchanted by what she and the production team achieved. The use of masks and puppets inspired me somewhere deep, especially the way puppets and live actors were interlinked. (The giraffes are really, really cool.) They recreated many scenes from the film fairly exactly, but the most impressive was the canyon scene where Mufasa gets killed by the wildebeests. They mirrored the film's visuals, but it was even more intense live on stage. (The immense amount of money they spent on this show was well-spent. I do want to say, though, that last year, I saw an equally impressive theatrical creation by the Beau Jest Moving Theater here in Boston, in their Samurai 7.0, on a tiny fraction of the budget (one of my favorite shows ever, directed by Davis Robinson). It ain't the $$$, it's the vision.)

One pleasant surprise was that they managed to plug some of the narrative holes that exist in the movie version, especially around Nala.

Timon and Pumba stuck out in the stage version, seeming especially cartoon-like, especially in terms of appearance, while the rest of the production was more impressionistic and suggestive. I suppose it was done to give the smallest kids something they'd recognize, but it felt jarring to me.

Another positive surprise was how the entire play, especially stylistically, felt connected to an African sensibility (especially to my ignorant, Western POV). In the film, the only thing that really felt that way was the opening song, but in the stage version, it permeates throughout.

My son was captivated throughout the show, which is an accomplishment. However, when it was all over, I came to see the Ancient Greeks' wisdom in never showing murder or suicide on stage. In both the film and stage versions of the Lion King story, Scar falls off Pride Rock and is killed by the hyenas. In the film version, this killing is suggested by shadows. However, in the Broadway version, we actually see him fall (thanks to wires) and then see the hyenas striking at him as a group (stylistically), killing him, as he sinks below the stage. Noah was traumatized by this--for more than an hour after we left the theatre, all he could talk about was how angry he was at the hyenas for killing scar. He was inconsolable and totally sympathetic to Scar after witnessing his death. (He is easily obsessed, I admit.) I couldn't help wondering if maybe the Greeks were onto something. I think we underestimate the power of violence on stage at our peril.

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