"The Velveteen Rabbit," a Theatreworks production playing at DR2 Theatre in Manhattan, is a whimsical and charming new take on the classic tale that uses found objects as props and relies on a creative trio of actors who aren't afraid to think outside the box.
As I sit at my computer mentally recapping Theatreworks USA’s newest production, The Velveteen Rabbit, I notice my own furry loved one—a 12-year-old senior kitizen named Cassidy—has arranged himself on my lap in the exact same pose as the title rabbit on the Playbill cover: paws on tummy, eyes locked in an inquisitive gaze, and just the hint of a smile. An adorable life-imitates-fiction omen? Absolutely.
And while kittens, puppies, and actual bunnies are not able to see and appreciate Margery Williams’s winsome classic transformed for the contemporary stage by writer/director Kevin Del Aguila, little kids and their grownups’ inner children happily can. I emphasize happily because this precocious gem of a family play is rich with the sort of creative surprises that sneak up on young theatergoers with engaging, whimsical stealth.
As you’re no doubt aware, the original book, which came out in the early 1920s, has remained a bedtime staple, spawning a gaggle of earnest stage, film, and TV adaptations over the decades. Still, it’s a pretty good bet that Del Aguila’s whirlwind three-person play leaves its literal predecessors in the dust, thanks in part to his ability to gently tweak the creaky parts. Somehow, he adapts what was seen as state-of-the-art during the Harding administration—i.e. wind-up, spring-driven mechanical toys—to jive with his post-Energizer Bunny audience.
For those unfamiliar with the storyline of The Velveteen Rabbit (subtitled Or How Toys Become Real), it follows a plush toy rabbit’s arrival in a little kid’s (“the Boy’s”) Christmas stocking, telling how the stuffed bunny went from being forgotten to becoming the child’s most cherished possession. During his brief exile, the Rabbit was befriended by the Skin Horse, a well-worn mentor of a toy who “had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others,” who told him, “When a child loves you for a long, long time—not just to play with, but really loves you—then you become real.” Thus, the desire to turn real is implanted in the impressionable Rabbit’s mind (even though the Skin Horse’s revelation lacked any changeover specifics).
The tale proceeds to build upon the BFF relationship between Boy and Rabbit over the seasons, during a serious illness, and through the unforeseen final separation that leads—magically, of course—to a most satisfying real happy ending.
Left to right: Actors John Curcuru, Kristin Parker, and Jim Stanek embrace writer/director Kevin Del Aguila’s imaginative script. “I wanted to work with actors I knew—people who would take this ball and run with it,” Del Aguila says. “They’re smart and creative and ingenious when it comes to thinking outside the box.”
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Truth be told, however, the magic in this playful rendition springs largely from Del Aguila’s big box emporium of imagination wherein he and his spunky trio of actors—John Curcuru, Kristin Parker, and Jim Stanek—and creative team took on the challenge of conjuring enchantment from found objects and simple costumes.
“At Theatreworks, there are no individual departments,” he says, “so everyone has to get on the same page, and there’s a lot of overlap. For example, someone might hold something up and ask, ‘Is this a prop? A costume? Both?’” In the end, he insists it’s this “pulling together” that makes the mechanics of a story work.
Del Aguila refers to Theatreworks as his professional acting training ground. “They gave me my first performing job in the city [a high-energy production of Around the World in 80 Days in which he played multiple roles] around 15 years ago.” And even though he’s gone on to make a name for himself as both a playwright (Altar Boyz) and Broadway actor (“Smee” in the limited-run hit Peter and the Starcatcher), his involvement with Theatreworks remains an important part of his broader career.
While Del Aguila considers The Velveteen Rabbit a culmination of his Theatreworks involvement, when he accepted the commission for the project he didn’t remember the story at all. “But after I started reading the book, it came back to me little by little, so I know I was familiar with it from some point in my childhood.”
What struck him during this rediscovery period was how some parts came off as overly sentimental—almost maudlin—while others were surprisingly existential and profound. “It’s these two widely different feelings that make it so interesting,” he says, adding that another draw was the fact that Theatreworks wanted to pursue a creative approach that mirrored Peter and the Starcatcher, in which the most unlikely found objects—a bit of rope or a colander, for instance—are turned into something quite unlikely and amazing. “We started out as a small group with a bunch of junk—stuff sitting around at Theatreworks—and we improvised how we could use these things to tell the story.”
Among the items that totally delight the audience are a bathroom plunger-turned-toy-boat-mast, a cluster of pinwheels standing in for a bed of flowers, and most popular of all, “the Doctor”: a coatrack, hat, and topcoat animated by one of the actors.
The Doctor is especially popular, according to Del Aguila—a fact I can vouch for, since I personally witnessed a couple of 6-year-old boys compliment the cast on the Doctor during the post-show photo-op in the lobby.
Del Aguila’s 4-year-old son, Felix, also a fan of the Doctor, turns out to have inspired his dad throughout the creative process.
“I introduced him to the story when he was 3, and I found when I was writing it I couldn’t help but inject things he currently likes and enjoys,” Del Aguila says. “He’s fascinated by butterflies and caterpillars and just learned the word ‘chrysalis’ so all that went in.* And of course, the main character is called Boy, so I couldn’t help but make him a substitute for Felix, who now, incidentally, has a corral of velveteen rabbits.”
*The bit of dialogue Del Aguila refers to is when the Boy says: "Caterpillars know how to make a little sleeping bag for themselves. It's called a 'chrysalis.' They go in as a caterpillar and when they come out, they change into butterflies!"
Where: The Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th St. (off Union Square)
When: Through Jan. 27: Friday at 5pm; Saturday-Sunday at 11am, 1pm, and 4pm (check the website for additional weekday performances during holidays and school breaks)
Age Range: 4-8
Tickets: $39; $32 for groups of six or more. For reservations, call 212-239-6200, visit telecharge.com, or visit the theater box office.
P.S. The theater has party space available for birthday/holidays parties (20 or more). To reserve, call 646-747-7400.
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