Just So!

Pardon me – and join me! – while I a take a moment from recounting the tales of vacation to recall this evening.  We were gifted this evening by generous friends of the Human Tape Recorder with tickets to a new play being produced by the Acting for Young People (AFYP) group at George Mason’s Center for the Arts.  I accompanied the HTR to this play, Just So, to see our young friend Paul on what was not his first and what will certainly not be his last performance on stage.

The topic of the play, though, was a natural draw for me – it was written and directed by AFYP’s Lisa Nanni-Messegee as a re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and parts of The Jungle Book, mashed up with the events of Kipling’s life as shown in the movie “My Boy Jack,” which is about the enlistment and subsequent death of his son John in WWI.  As a lifelong fan of Kipling’s work, as well as a solid fan of our friend Paul, I couldn’t wait to see it!

Having now seen it, I expect that this play could eventually find its way to a bigger stage with a wider audience.  It needs first to decide what it wants to be; the mashup takes tales written for children in the 1890s and finally published in 1902, and tries to find the intersection of these stories with the events of 1915, when his son died in the Battle of Loos, France, in WWI.  The Just So Stories treated in the play, both How the Whale Got His Throat and The Elephant’s Child, tend toward comedy, as do several of the parts of the Jungle Book.  (Baloo is hard to play as anything but a comedic foil.)  In the meantime, the guilt Kipling feels over his role in getting John into the Irish Guards is anything but comic, and the juxtiposition of the two doesn’t always work.  The audience may have been left in several scenes trying to decide which parts were supposed to be funny.  There were a few factual missteps:  for instance, at one point our young Kipling mentioned that he was the Poet Laureate.  In fact he was offered the post more than once, but refused it.   He *was* a Nobel Laureate, however – he remains to this date the youngest Literature Laureate, having been 42 years old when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

Speaking of young and talented, the actors, ranging in age from 18 to 11, were brilliant for their parts.  They were well chosen for their roles and performed them like the professionals that they aren’t yet – and there’s no question that some of them will be.  Noah M_, who played the young doomed John Kipling, was particularly brilliant, as was our Paul, who played Mowgli on the cusp of manhood and made him seem every bit as real as any teenager caught between child and adult.  Jessi S_, the young lady playing Kaa, the snake, was also exceptional. 

It was a well choreographed, well thought out play, and I enjoyed it a lot.  It lasted nearly 2 and a half hours, and the time flew by – the story was paced so well that I wasn’t the only audience member surprised by the hour when we exited.  The music was used well and often, and the props were minimal enough that they never got in the way of the story.  There was a musical called “Just So” based on those stories in 1984; this isn’t that.  I’ve been reading Kipling since I was much younger than tonight’s actors, and I’ve never seen or heard of anyone revisiting these two very different points in Kipling’s life in quite this way.  I expect that with some minor variations, this unique perspective will be retold in increasingly larger venues, and it should be.   For those readers in the DC area, it’s playing again tomorrow at the George Mason University Center for the Arts at 2 pm.  If you’re half the Kipling fan I am, it’s more than worth the price of admission – and I thank Paul’s parents again for the opportunity to attend tonight! 

For further reading in case you need a refresher on why Kipling’s still considered one of the best short story writers ever, I offer you a choice:  The Man Who Would Be King, a novella from 1888, or The Brushwood Boy, a shorter story written in 1895 and included as the capstone story in The Day’s Work in 1898.  The Brushwood Boy is probably my favorite short story ever. 



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