ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Serenbe kicks off summer season with strong, inventive take on “The Velveteen Rabbit”

Review: Serenbe kicks off summer season with strong, inventive take on “The Velveteen Rabbit”

This version of "The Velveteen Rabbit" is set in Savannah during the Civil War. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
This version of "The Velveteen Rabbit" is set in Savannah during the Civil War. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
This version of “The Velveteen Rabbit” is set in Savannah during the Civil War. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

Productions at Serenbe Playhouse tend to be unmistakably all their own. It’s not just the outdoor setting that provides atmosphere. Plays come complete with live music before and during the show, as well as characters who dart in and out of the woods, sometimes greeting patrons, and all that lends a real sense of event.

The playhouse, whose productions take place within the Serenbe artists’ colony in Chattahoochee Hills, is now staging a revisionist take on “The Velveteen Rabbit” as part of a three-play summer season that also includes “A Walk in the Woods” and “Hair.” Directed by Brian Clowdus, the company’s artistic director, it runs through July 27 at the Grange Creek at Serenbe Playhouse.

Clowdus and collaborator Rachel Teagle, who adapted last year’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Serenbe’s “The Ugly Ducking” in 2011, have moved the classic Margery Williams story, originally published in 1922, to Civil War-era Savannah, based on a concept by Robyn Young. The tale otherwise is largely the same. Young Samuel (Sam Constantino) receives a Christmas gift from his attentive Nana (Kelli Owens): a stuffed rabbit (played by Ryan Ortega) that the boy becomes quite attached to. The rabbit thinks it’s real and talks to the other toys in the nursery when the boy and Nana are away. Although the other toys scoff at the rabbit, it is enamored of the notion that a child’s love can make a toy literally spring to life and grows determined for that to happen.

Now in its fourth season, Serenbe continues to alternate between offering newer fare and presenting fresh spins on familiar works. Choosing “The Velveteen Rabbit” to open the season proves to be a smart choice. The production is imaginative, playful and often interactive. The outdoor setting isn’t just a prop; it gives the show more of a feeling, although Clowdus possibly could have taken more advantage of that.

Last year, Serenbe opened its season with a version of “Alice in Wonderland” that was creative but emotionally guarded. “The Velveteen Rabbit” has more depth and feeling. The boy and his rabbit develop a genuine relationship and a chemistry that drives the story. The relationship with Nana, warmly played by Owens, is also nicely etched.

The interaction among the toys is just as much fun. The Skin Horse (portrayed by Tyrell Ruffin) is a flamboyant, charismatic type that’s easily the most dynamic presence in the cast. Something of a narrator, actor Ruffin is quite funny with killer comic timing. Another engaging character is Maggie (Mary Hadsell), a ballerina in the mix with the other toys. Choreographer Bubba Carr has given her and the rest of the characters some imaginative moves, including a careful, almost slow-motion dance.

Clocking in at just under an hour,” Serenbe Playhouse’s “The Velveteen Rabbit” is a solid production — and something of a rarity for children’s shows. It’s both one the kids will enjoy, especially if they aren’t already familiar with it, and one that adults won’t have to roll their eyes and fidget through.

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