Fort Worth — Who’d have thought the curse of outdoor summer theater in Texas this year would be…rain? Yet for the third time in a row this season, Hip Pocket Theatre’s opening night—and the night after—were called onna counta the wet stuff.
But by Sunday—let’s do this or die, seemed to be the look on every face—HPT’s production of The Land of Oz was up and running, trying to wring some magic from L. Frank Baum’s lesser-known second Oz book (1904), originally titled The Marvelous Land of Oz.
And though it comes and goes, some magic there is, with brand-new characters (puppet and human) to charm us, and fresh takes on our old friends the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Glinda the Good. This sequel is just as offbeat and eccentric as the original story, and it’s interesting to see what else Baum did with his imaginary world. But we tend to forget that The Wizard of Oz needed Hollywood help to plumb the meaning and emotions of the original book. Left untweaked, this straight-up adaptation feels a bit two-dimensional—though very faithful to the oddness of Baum.
Still, it’s always fun to watch Hip Pocket summer visitors Lake Simons and John Dyer work their wiles with puppetry and music. Simons’ precise envisioning and direction of Baum’s characters mirrors the author’s own literal, feet-on-the-ground way with a story—he describes everything and everyone down to the last whisker. And musician-songwriter Dyer provides a filigreed guitar/percussion accompaniment to the action—though we’d have wished for more of his curious songs along the way, too. (Dyer, Jozy Camp, Allen Dean and Elysia Worcester do nice work on a song that starts the show.)
In this Land of Oz, Dorothy is history. (She seems to have stayed put once she got home to Kansas, alas.) This time, we journey with a young boy named Tip (Christina Cranshaw) who works for a grumpy old witch named Mombi (Laura L. Jones). In his spare moments he builds himself a giant-sized friend, Jack Pumpkinhead (voiced by Brian Welton Cook, manipulated by Cook and Kristi Lynn Mills) who, to Tip’s annoyance, doesn’t scare Mombi a bit.
When Mombi tells Tip she plans to use magic powder to turn him into a statue—but not ‘til tomorrow morning, sleep well, kid—Tip steals the powder and magically brings Jack and a handy sawhorse (transportation, you know) to life. And together, they’re off to see…oh, wait, not the Wizard. They’re going to the Emerald City to consult its new ruler, the Scarecrow (Jeff Stanfield).
Stanfield, fresh from the hippie-dippiness of Hip Pocket’s last show, In Watermelon Sugar, is a delight as the reluctant ruler—a long-haired lounger draped over the emerald throne with the bored air of a rock star between tours. The Scarecrow clearly would like a change of scenery—so when the EC is overrun by (gasp) an army of girls led by peppery General Jinjur (Kristi Ramos Toler), the Scarecrow is easily convinced to join Tip’s traveling band.
There’s no way (spoilers ahead!) to tell much more about the plot. Let’s just say the quest continues, as Tip and friends seek help from the Tin Woodman (Allen Dean) and Glinda the Good (Jasmine Marie West)—warriors both, it turns out—and get some brainy advice from the Thoroughly Educated Woggle-Bug. (Dustin Curry is a pontificatin’ hoot.) The tiny Mouse Queen (Simons’ enchanting hand puppet is worked by Jozy Camp) offers her field mice as reinforcements, and the whole crew flies in a cumbersome winged contraption named “the Gump” for the mythical animal head serving as hood ornament.
Cranshaw is quick-thinking and feisty as Tip (or Tippetarius, to use his whole name). Unlike Dorothy, Tip doesn’t appear to be the center of this story—but wait. He’s a smart, inventive boy and we wish him a happily-ever-after, whatever that might be.
Lauren Moreau and Rebo Hill’s costumes are creative and in the spirit of Oz-ness: the Scarecrow’s soft suit, the green coat of the Emerald City Guard (a blustery James Warila) and the Woggle-Bug’s spiffy jacket and vest are standouts. And the ensemble of puppeteers are grand, whether they’re letting a frisky sawhorse kick its heels, charging around with a galloping Griffin—or giving the super-sized stick figure of Jack Pumpkinhead a real personality.
Just a hysterical/historical end note: L. Frank Baum was married to Maud Gage, the strong-minded daughter of a then-famous women’s rights advocate, Matilda Gage.
Points for Mr. Baum: his “girl army” is a serious fighting force in The Land of Oz.
Points lost: he can’t help using knitting needles—and mice—to make fun of the females.
One wonders how it all went down at home.